6.15.2009

Catherine the Great.


I've been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately -- maybe because I've been cooking in an old cast-iron frying pan that belonged to her, or maybe because what I've been cooking reminds me of her. Before dementia and old age stole her senses, she loved cornbread, fried chicken, summer tomatoes in oil and vinegar, stewed squash with onion; peach ice cream made in the freezer on the porch, fresh sliced strawberries, the smell of bacon and coffee in the morning. She loved it all.

When I'm poised in front of this frying pan, wooden tongs in hand, I think of her and her own stance at the stove. I think of summers spent running in from the front yard with my cousins, all filthy feet and sand-behind-the-ears and bug bites, to help set the table for supper. The rule was that if you set the table, you didn't have to help with the dishes, and I hate doing the dishes. We trotted back and forth between the kitchen and dining table, setting out the ugly blue flowered dishes, the pot of crab stew, the platters of fried fish and skillet cornbread. My grandfather took his place at the head of the table by the china cabinet, and she took hers at the end, next to the bookshelf that held her cookbooks. We all scrambled for a place in between, angling to not have to sit on the creaky wooden kitchen stool. With five daughters and multitudes of grandchildren, friends and guests, there were never enough chairs. But there was always enough food.

Maybe I've been thinking about her because, through all this wedding nonsense, I wish she were here. I wish she could meet Michael. I think she'd like him; she would like how funny he is, and respectful to others, and uncompromising. She would roll her eyes at his jokes, if she could hear them. She would show him how to clean shrimp, and find some fault with his table manners and gently tease him about it, and she would feed him. And she would pull me back to her sewing room and show me bits of the lace she used for my mother's wedding dress, and she would say, "He seems like a nice boy." I wish she could know that I, like her, met my husband in New York -- a girl moved up from the south, looking for her way in unfamiliar territory, and finding a home in someone's arms. I wish she knew that.

At my grandmother's funeral three years ago, my mother's aunt looked at me and said, "My lord, you favor Catherine." It was the only time I saw my mother choke up; we are not criers, my mother and me, or not in front of others, and not even in front of each other. Yes, I do favor her. I am thankful for that, for her name and wicked grin and round apple cheeks.

I am grateful for her love of food, too -- her Scottish thrift about it, and her willingness to try anything. I think she would like what I've got for you today: a bacon and brown rice salad, tart with white wine vinegar and Dijon mustard and sweetened up with dill, cooked in her iron skillet. Yes, indeed. She would have liked that.

Brown Rice and Bacon Salad
Adapted from Alton Brown

2 cups cooked brown rice
6 slices good bacon (we use Applegate Farms Sunday Bacon around here)
1/2 red onion, diced
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
about 2 tsp. Dijon mustard (depends on how tart you want the dressing; I use 2 tsp. on the nose)
1/2 cup chicken broth (if you don't have that, just use water)
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
black pepper to taste
1 tsp. dill

In a heavy-bottomed skillet, cook the bacon until crispy and crumbly. Drain on a paper towel, and remove all but about a tablespoon of the grease from the pan. In the remaining bacon fat (a little bit won't hurt you) saute the onion until translucent. In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, broth, sugar, salt and pepper, and pour the mixture over the onion. Stir around and cook for a few minutes. Then add the cooked brown rice and crumbled bacon to the pan, and cook over medium heat until the liquid is absorbed by the rice. Remove from the heat and stir in the dill. Let cool, and eat at will.

Serves four.



5.11.2009

Sweet tart.



I've flown south twice in two weeks, and boy, are my arms tired.

Sorry. Let's try that again.

I've flown south twice in two weeks, and boy, are my pants tight. 

Better?

This is due to barbecue and braised Brussels sprouts with bacon at a joint in North Carolina, a sausage breakfast at Mama Dip's, grits and grillades after dancing to a second line at a New Orleans wedding, a crawfish po-boy and an Abita with friends on Iberville Street, and an about-to-get-on-a-plane-final Bloody Mary at Antoine's. If you haven't done the latter, you must get yourself on a plane -- tickets to New Orleans are almost always cheap -- and run from your cab to the Hermes Bar. Grin when the lovely waiter heralds your arrival with a "Welcome to Antoine's, young lady!" Perch yourself on a bar stool, watch your neighbor sop up the remaining smidges of his oeufs sardou, and eat your pickled green bean very, very slowly. Then stroll back down the Rue St. Louis to the Omni, where the doorman will encourage you to leave New Orleans, because leaving is what makes coming back so good. 

It makes things better, I have found.

Anyway, I am not complaining about my pants, because I can buy new ones. And really -- how could anyone wail about an epicurean run such as that? But this is one reason we're staying north, at least for the moment: if we drifted back towards the home of our hearts, we'd change pants sizes. Twice. Maybe three times. But who's counting.

But I told you I'd have new ideas for you, and here's one, although I'm a little wary of sharing its name with you. It's truly one of the best desserts I've ever had, and I first tasted it at the afore-mentioned barbecue joint in Chapel Hill. It's a rich sponge layer cake with lemon curd filling and a citrus-coconut frosting, the kind of gooey goodness that might make your teeth ache just a little. But its name -- oh, its name. 

Its name is the Robert E. Lee cake. 

My name is Robert E. Lee, and I like cake.

However, while the general certainly chose the wrong side of the war (after a well-documented struggle of conscience), he clearly had good taste when it came to desserts. By legend, this was his favorite cake, and I can see why. The lemon curd is given time to soak into the sponge layers, giving the core of the cake an extra kick of sweet-tartness, and the frosting's citrusy complexity finishes the whole thing off perfectly. After tasting a couple of weekends ago in North Carolina, I went on a hunt for the recipe and found many iterations of it; turns out that the Lee cake is an old, storied dessert, and how I made it nearly 30 years without encountering it, I don't know. Must have been my until-recent aversion to coconut.

So here's the recipe, and it comes with a couple of warnings: one, it is labor-intensive and takes a while to bring all the pieces together, and I would give yourself a good afternoon to assemble it properly. Two, your husband or fiance or partner may not be able to leave the kitchen while you're baking it, and especially while you're whipping up the frosting. They may even endanger their fingertips by sticking them in the bowl while the mixer is still going. This would be a good time to put that person to work by doing the dishes, because you'll be making a big mess. And afterwards, if they do a good job, you can reward that person with a slice of Robert E. Lee cake. 

By the way, in my house, it's now called the Ouiser Boudreaux cake, which stakes a claim to its roots while indicating its balance of sweetness and tart bite. That is, if you know who Miss Ouiser was. 

Robert E. Lee Cake or the Ouiser Boudreaux Cake
whichever suits your fancy. Adapted from Allrecipes.com.

for the cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
8 egg yolks
2 cups white sugar
8 egg whites
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
2 tbsp. lemon juice
1/8 tsp. salt

for the filling:
3 egg yolks
1 1/3 cups white sugar
2 1/2 tsp. grated lemon zest
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup butter, softened

for the frosting:
1/3 cup butter, softened
4 cups confectioners' sugar
3 tbsp. grated orange zest
2 1/2 tbsp. orange juice
1 1/2 tsp. grated lemon zest
1 1/2 tbsp. lemon juice
1 1/ cups flaked coconut, toasted if you wish

For the cake:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans. Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder and cream of tartar. 

In a different bowl, beat the 8 egg yolks and two cups of sugar until creamy and pale. Stir in the lemon zest and juice. In yet another bowl (glass or cold metal are preferable) beat the egg whites and salt with a mixer until soft peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the yolk mixture, alternating it with the dry ingredients. Take care to not over-beat this, since the egg whites will give the batter the sponginess you're aiming for. Spread evenly into the prepared pans and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, watching it very carefully. Cool the layers first in their pans (for about 10 minutes or so) and then on a wire rack, taking care to not break them. Using a serrated knife, cut them in half horizontally.

For the filling:
In the top of a double boiler (or in a mixing bowl over a pan of water), mix the sugar, egg yolks, lemon zest and juice over high heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and everything is completely combined. Watch your heat carefully; you don't want chunks of egg yolk in this. Remove it from the heat and stir in the softened butter. Let it sit and come to room temperature.

For the frosting:
Cream the butter until fluffy, and add the sugar, zest and juice gradually until completely combined and smooth. Mix in half a cup of the coconut.

To assemble:
Spread about 1/3 of the lemon filling on a half layer, and put its top on. Then do the same with another half layer, and then yet another until all four are used up. Frost and sprinkle the remaining coconut on top. Let this cake sit for a day or so to let the curd soak into the layers; it'll make it that much better, I promise.

Serves 12 to 14, depending on your sweet tooth.






4.28.2009

The perfect fit.


My goodness. I go away for two weeks, for no really good reason, and it turns to spring, all fluttery pink and cream breezes and melting ice cream cones. This spring has a special tang for me, and I'm not sure why. I have slowed down. I don't trot across the footbridge on the way home anymore, and I meander everywhere, even to the mailroom at work. It is a pace that seems out of touch with this hustly-bustly city of mine, but I like it. It's nice to ride the tide, rather than trying to beat it.

I'm home alone this week, my betrothed being ensconced in an Alabama cabin with a stack of books, a bottle of bourbon, and his father. Over a patchy roaming connection, he's been relaying stories of old damned dogs wandering onto their porch and older men reminding him to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day. We both have deep roots in the south, and it's still easy to slip into the rhythms of a spring day down there. Even though he's not here, maybe I'm keeping company with him, trading a caffeinated strut down Broadway for a honeyed ramble through the fields. I can feel my voice relaxing into its old -- original? -- drawl, even just while on the phone at work. I am grateful for the comfort of our two worlds, even as they pose a constant quandary for us.

Maybe I miss the south, and him being in it this week makes me ache for it even more. Or maybe it's the spring winds buffeting my skirts as I walk to the subway. Whatever it is, I feel very slow right now, like molasses scootching into a gingerbread batter. 

Tonight, I came back from a slow run in the park (where a bug flew right down my gullet, the fool) just in time for our grocery delivery. I tore open the boxes, shoving cans of beans here and there, until I smelled what I was looking for: my strawberries. It's still too early for them yet, really, but I couldn't resist; they beckoned from Fresh Direct like twinkly diamonds. These were a luxurious red, and they even smelled red. I don't know how berries do that. I really do think that a blackberry -- a good, ripe one that explodes in your mouth -- smells like its own dusky deep color, and a good ripe strawberry smells like a strawberry color. And these, oh thank goodness, did. 

I washed some and cut their tops off, and curled up on the couch with a bowl of Greek yogurt, a big glass of water, and my berries, and ate it all very slowly, winding my tongue around the spoon to get every smidge of yogurt. I ate the strawberries like I ate cookies as a child -- bit by bit, one small bite at a time until there was nothing left but a few scattered seeds in the bowl. There is some food that is riotous, like a sizzling fajita or a tower of chocolate mousse, and there is some food that is sort of jokey, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the crusts cut off, or maybe a bowl of cherry Jell-O. But my dinner was quiet food, suited to this particular slowness that I've been simmering in for the past few weeks. It was perfect.

I'll be concocting a dark chocolate and Chambord torte for the Bake for the Cure next week, and I hope it's good enough to share with you. In the middle of that, though, I'm heading south to look at some wedding locations, and I hope to bring back some more ideas for you, and some more grits for me. In the meantime, find the food that fits you right now. It is a blessing.
 





4.12.2009

A brave taste


I might as well just jump into this: I don't like green peas. Never have. It started, I am sure, during some traumatic meal when I was four, a prolonged affair that ended in a stare-down between my parents and myself, the offending peas growing ever colder as I pushed them around the plate like marbles. I am sure I got up to some caper like spitting them all into my napkin and spiriting it to the kitchen, where I dumped them into the trash can. And I am sure that, as an unpracticed miscreant, I neglected to cover them up, leaving a bemused parent to yank me into the kitchen and demand some sort of reason for why my peas were perched on top of the banana peels and coffee grounds like scattershot on tree bark. I am also sure that I received some sort of punishment for that particular transgression, and I am sure that that punishment involved eating more peas.

I really don't like peas. One night last month on our Grand Irish Family Adventure, Michael's mother ordered fish and chips with a side of "mushy peas" -- chunky green goop, steaming in a metal gravy boat next to her fried cod. Michael force-fed me a taste as my own mother sat next to me, laughing so hard that she could barely eat her meal. I think he might have seen his future: a brown-haired child with a snub nose and round cheeks, zipping her little mouth shut at his efforts to feed her peas. In that future stand-off, I'm not sure whose side I'll be on.

Disregarding the Irish pea incident, I really have tried to come to terms with them as an adult. There are other foods that I avoid, and I've developed decent reasons -- to my mind -- for most of them. Jell-O: the texture and I are not friends. Hot dogs: I read the labels, and no thank you. But peas? I just don't have a good reason, except to say that I do not like them. I feel like I should be put in the corner just for saying that, as if I'd just stamped my feet and kicked the door.

So why, may you ask, am I rambling on about a dislike of peas? Why am I burdening you with this? Why are you still reading?

This is why: I think I've found a way in which peas and I can come to a detente of sorts, and for those of you who already have a friendly relationship with peas, this might even make it better. It is green pea soup, a springtime concoction with roasted garlic, onion and a wave of dill that ties the whole thing together with an unexpected twinkle. I'd been thinking of such a dish over the weekend, wondering how to make do with what was in my kitchen (I'm horribly lazy about going to the grocery store.) We'd reached the end of the good frozen vegetables and were left with a bag of green peppers from our CSA, another of brussels sprouts, and two bags of organic green peas. I buy them to throw into tuna casserole and other warming winter comfort dishes, and I always have more than I'll ever use. 

So, staring at the freezer door, I started thinking -- what could make green peas taste better? Roasted garlic is always a good start, and a little salt and pepper, and what else tastes good? Dill, of course....and so it went. And then Google told me that Nigella Lawson had already made a form of this soup, which was a little disheartening, but I ultimately took it as a good sign, and very good footsteps to follow. The roasted garlic gives the sweet peas a blast of warmth, and the dill helps the whole thing out with a little fresh spring-ness. Sprinkled with pepper and fresh grated Parmesan, it's not certainly not the worst thing in the world, as if anything with fresh grated Parmesan and roasted garlic could be.

I feel like maybe -- just maybe, and give us some time -- peas and I are going to be friends after all.

Green Pea and Roasted Garlic Soup
Adapted from Nigella Lawson and a hundred other variations

This soup is extremely easy and cheap. Just make sure your garlic is fresh and your stock is good. If you can't make your own or get your hands on some good store-bought stock, use water instead. Bad stock makes for bad soup, in my experience.

2 full heads of garlic
12 oz. frozen green peas (I used Cascadian Farms, but Birds Eye or your store brand is just fine)
1 onion, chopped 
a generous glug of olive oil
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (pork stock might make for an interesting twist as well)
1/2 cup, give or take, of milk (if you're feeling luxurious, cut back the amount and use cream or half-and-half)
1/2 tsp. dill, or to taste
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp. fresh grated Parmesan

Chop the top off the heads of garlic, making sure each clove is exposed. Drizzle a little olive oil over both, and wrap in aluminum foil. Roast at 350 degrees in the oven until the cloves are golden and tender but not burned. This can happen more quickly than you think, so keep an eye on them. I'd give them about 25 minutes, and then check on them. Pull out from the oven and let them cool so as to avoid burned fingertips.

Give an onion a medium chop. Saute in olive oil -- enough to cover the bottom of a heavy-bottomed pan or Dutch oven -- over medium heat until softened, but not completely translucent. Add the green peas, still frozen, and the two cups of stock. Bring to a strong simmer, and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the peas are cooked through. Add the garlic and combine completely. 

In a blender, pulse the whole mixture, adding the dill and salt and pepper, until it's finely pureed. Be careful with the salt, because the Parmesan will add some on its own. If the soup is too thick here, start adding the milk until you achieve the texture and consistency you want. Serve in individual bowls, sprinkled with Parmesan and a little pepper. This would go well with a crusty bread, a green salad and a glass of dry white wine.




4.07.2009

Punch-Drunk Love.


Well, then. After two blessed weeks of being betrothed, my brain has turned into something resembling pineapple-flavored mush. I say pineapple because I love punch, and I think I'm the only person who still does, but I am a total sucker for frozen pineapple rings and 7-Up swirled together in a big silver bowl, and would it be OK to have that at my wedding even if no one drinks it but my grandmother, my cousin's two-year-old and me?

I hear that my brain will calm down eventually -- that after the first few exhilarating weeks of being engaged, the march of Champagne and toasts will end, and I'll be left with a stack of wedding magazines and an actual event to plan. Last Saturday afternoon, we hunkered down in a bar with a couple of drinks and tried to figure out what was what. We know we want good food, trees and a lovely spring breeze. We want a dear friend to lead us into marriage, rather than a person of a faith that we don't adhere to. We want bourbon and lots of dancing, and a place where people can take their shoes off, loosen their ties, and talk and laugh until the wee sma's.

Then we went home and watched the Carolina game, and pretty much forgot everything we'd decided upon.

I am not forgetting that we're getting married, and that we'll have a marriage, not just a wedding. But you can't plan a marriage. I am thrilled to the tips of my toes for the surprises of our life to come, and I don't want to know any of it. I have no idea where we'll live in five years, or what our child's name will be, or if we'll be able to have a child. I don't know what will devastate us, or when. I don't know who will wreck the car first, or which puppy will tear up the living room carpet, or what job will take us someplace we'd never considered. This, I think, is the central tenet of a marriage -- the not knowing, and the willingness to keep going, hand in hand. To keep saying yes, as Shauna says.

However, you can plan the unholy hell out of a wedding. And so, for the last week, my subway time has been filled with thoughts of bridesmaid dresses, and Champagne vs. Prosecco, and a barn in the Catskills or a hilltop in the Appalachians. It's not like I was solving the global financial crisis before we got engaged. But hoo-eee, has my brain gone soft, just like a big bowl of buttercream icing.


This is the sort of cake I won't be having.

All this is to say: I haven't got much for you today, and I am sorry. In fact, last night was the first time since we returned from vacation that I cooked a full meal for just the two of us. But the good news is, I made a discovery.

Last April, my mom and I rented a little apartment between Pisa and Florence and wandered the Italian countryside by day, exploring Siena and Lucca and eating way too much gelato. On the way home each night, we stopped at the local Coop and picked up bits and bobs for dinner. One night we steamed the prettiest petite purple artichokes and dipped their leaves into a heavenly garlic aioli; the next, we sliced up a couple of blood oranges and ate them with half a bag of Pernigotti chocolates and some salami. This is exactly why I love traveling with my mom. She likes roaming a grocery store just as much as she likes roaming an art museum.

Anyway, it was at the Coop deli counter, in my idiotic attempts at Italian ("bene? bene! si bene!") that I found the greatest roast chicken of my life. I pointed to it, and the deli lady threw it unceremoniously into an aluminum bag, as if she had no idea what she'd just given me. Back in our little apartment, my mom and I cut into this chicken, took one bite each, and put our forks down in awe. The skin was perfect -- thin enough to maintain a light crispiness, but still substantial and savory. The little breast -- so unlike an American chicken, with its overfed bustiness -- was expertly salted, juicy with a strong chicken-ness. And I can't even talk about the dark meat. We spent the next half hour trying to figure out how a grocery store deli chicken could be one of the tastiest things we'd ever eaten.

I think I got it last night, and the answer is "pollo buono," which is the name of this Italian heritage chicken I'd ordered from Fresh Direct and had been defrosting for the past couple of days. I didn't think much of it when I unwrapped and washed this chicken, although I did notice how very thin the skin was, and how the chicken's thighs dwarfed its breast. In my haste to get dinner started, I salted it well, dumped some olive oil all over it and threw it in the oven at 400 degrees. And then I looked at Wedding Crap online for an hour.

But when I pulled our pollo buono out of the oven, I saw the deli lady's face, vaguely annoyed by me and her blue paper hat, and I smelled the spring air floating into our kitchen in Tuscany. This is it, I thought. We ate it with some roasted carrots and parsnips and watched UNC decimate Michigan State, whose very depressed bench, during the last few minutes, made me truly sad.

Yes, I just rhapsodized over a chicken that I want you to try (seriously: Fresh Direct "pollo buono," or try to find a local Italian heritage chicken at your butcher). Yes, I just expressed feeling for the opposing team. As my grandmother said, it takes all kinds.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a new Martha Stewart Weddings to attend to.

3.29.2009

The rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used


The first time Michael held my hand, it was under the table at the Howard Johnson's in Times Square, a place that now only exists in memory. We were sitting across the table from a friend and one of her various hangers-on, and everyone was sharing ice cream. I couldn't eat; it was early September and sweltering, and the ice cream was so welcome, but this strange man sitting a little closer to me each minute was distracting. I'd invited him out with us, wondering if the drinks and dinners we'd shared over the summer were just friendly or more than that, and what was he up to, anyway, being so teasingly sweet and attentive?

I remember when I called him and asked, he cut me off. "Absolutely," he said. "Right now."

That night, we all wanted ice cream, and so after work we ended up at the Ho-Jo's. I ordered a dish of something and pushed it around as it melted. I kept casting glances at this guy next to me, this generous, funny man in a navy t-shirt with a ratty neck, the kind that has been washed so many times that hope is the only thing holding it together. His summer haircut was growing out on his neck, and his glasses kept slipping down his dignified slope of a nose. (I love his nose.) I didn't know what to think. 

And then, as Jenny was rattling on about something, his hand slowly migrated to mine. It was tentative, and then rushed, as if he had to grab it before it disappeared. And then I felt us float away from the Ho-Jo's and into a midnight space of our own, where the only noise was the rushing of water and a steady thump-thump of hearts, and we plummeted down, down into a fizzy, sparkly pool, where our fingers entwined like roots growing toward each other. 

We wandered out into the warm fall rain and made our way to the steps of the New York Public Library, where, to the amusement of several homeless people and late-night passersby, he kissed me until the sun peeped over the midtown skyscrapers. The lions kept watch over us, and a white limousine sped past us down Fifth Avenue, screaming toward the dawn. 

That was almost five years ago, and we are still growing toward each other. And last Tuesday, on a cold, windy cliff in Ireland, we reaffirmed what we'd known before: that it was still just the two of us, floating together, holding each other in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other, welcoming what may come. He asked me to marry him, and I buried my face in his raincoat, holding onto him so tightly as if he would float away if I didn't, and my legs went all jelly beneath me, threatening to tumble me into the verdant moss. And then I started to laugh, great giant gasping laughs that shook both of us, and I squeaked out, "Yeah. YES."

Yes to it all: laughing and melted ice cream, and a shredded navy blue t-shirt, and arguing and sleeping in and sharing the last glass of wine, and passport stamps and quiet mornings and runs in the park, and bank accounts and dogs and old milk and new babies and the newspaper. All with him. Just us.

So. We're getting married. And wouldn't you know, I already have a recipe for a groom's cake.

Red Velvet Cake
adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook

I made this cake a couple of weeks ago, when I had absolutely no inkling of what was coming. It's the insect-like thing here, and it was supposed to be an armadillo. Those of you versed in magnolias will know what I'm talking about.

This cake has a hint of citrus thanks to a generous dollop of orange peel, but I think you can leave it out if you want a pure chocolate-y cake. The gray icing, of course, is up to you.

2 and a 1/2 cups sifted, bleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 cup cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
1 ounce red food coloring (that's a whole bottle. Embrace it.)
1 1/2 tbsp. water
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk (whole or lowfat, it's up to you; I used buttermilk powder mixed according to the directions, and it turned out fine)
1 tbsp. grated orange zest, about one whole orange

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease and flour two cake pans (round or square, up to you), or line the bottoms with greased wax or parchment paper.

Sift the flour, salt, baking powder and soda together at least twice. You don't want any white lumps in this cake -- it will ruin the aesthetic. Then in a small bowl, whisk the food coloring, cocoa and water until it makes a smooth paste. It will look vile. Don't worry.

Beat the butter with an electric mixer until fluffy, and add the sugar, 1/4 cup at a time, until completely mixed in, and it has a light texture. Add the eggs, vanilla and orange zest, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the red paste and mix thoroughly. 

Add the dry ingredient mixture to the butter/sugar mixture about 1/2 a cup at a time, alternating it with a dollop of buttermilk. You'll want to mix this together with a wooden spoon or spatula, so as to avoid overbeating the cake. Give it about 12 strokes with the spoon until everything is evenly mixed up, and divide the batter into the two cake pans. Bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Watch it carefully; you'll want to avoid any tough edges or hint of overbaking. Cool the cakes on a rack.

For the icing:
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened but NOT melted
2 packages of cream cheese, softened (Neufchatel cheese works fine if, for some reason, you're counting calories)
1 lb. sifted 10-x sugar
a little milk or half and half

Beat the butter, cream cheese and sugar together until fully blended and smooth. If you think the icing is too stiff, add a little milk or half and half. Here's where you'll also want to add the food coloring, if you're looking for a gray icing. I don't have a formula for it; all I did was add one drop of each color in the pack until the icing started looking like a stormy sky.

Ice the layers as generously as you see fit. Feeds a bunch -- I'd say a good 12 slices, with a little left over. 








3.15.2009

The girls of 469


I moved to New York five years ago this month. I can hardly believe how quickly the time has passed -- I feel like I'm still unpacking my bags, and I only moved up here with one suitcase. But I can see how the five years have washed over my face, leaving little lines near my eyes where there were none before. There was my first year here, feeling my way around a strange, fascinating city from a sanctuary of a room in Brooklyn; there were the second and third, finally used to the jang-bangling of the A train, going home to my very own tiny studio with the crazy neighbor and Pepto-pink bathroom. The fourth was more complicated, full of difficult days that toughened my skin and opened my heart. It's fitting that a fifth-anniversary wedding gift should be a timepiece. I feel as though for the first time in my life, I know that time is ticking away, and the hands on the clock are moving ever faster. 

My first real home here was the front room in a Brooklyn fourth-floor walkup with two other girls. I remember the first time I walked into 469. The apple-red hallway stretched all the way to the back of the house, where the door to the sunny back bedroom was open, and my roommate's clothes were tumbled all over the floor. Next door, I could hear our 2-year-old neighbor running back and forth, dragging something heavy and disinclined to be pulled. In the front room -- my room -- the April afternoon light burst through the two windows facing the blooming street, and the inlaid floors shone with a hundred waxings. The shelf in the bathroom held a cacophony of nail polish and tweezers and ten types of bath salts. The dishwasher hummed in the kitchen.

I thought, my goodness: I am here, where I should be.

The apartment came with several lovely women -- roommates, friends of roommates, or ex-roommates, and who all felt that 469 was, in some way, their home too. They brought with them recipes, laughing on the couch, hours of sitting on the kitchen floor and playing dress-up in the living room, lots of cheap red wine and bad television. We dragged a free couch off the street at 2 a.m.; had dinner parties up on the roof, Manhattan flickering in the distance like a jeweled crown; ate Indian takeout and dribbled it all over the living room floor. We danced at weddings, made guacamole like it was going out of style, and kept each other's counsel. We were a joyful coven of cackling women, happy to be in each other's company.


Four years later, it is much harder to get us all in the same room. School, work, dates, boyfriends, husbands and life pull at us. But good things have happened for the girls of 469; the apartment seems to hold some witchery for those who have sojourned there. And every once in a while, with some Herculian planning and aligning of stars, we do manage to get together. So on Saturday night, with men banished down the street, we convened in my apartment for good food and a movie that never fails to open the waterworks. We drank more cheap red wine, dug into some cheese, and piled into the kitchen to make one of the greatest dishes of all time, all of us together.

If you can figure out what this thing is, you'll know what movie we watched.

Years ago, a man named Bill Neal opened Crook's Corner, a restaurant in Chapel Hill. He was not just any man, and Crook's is not just any restaurant, just as, I believe, Chapel Hill is not just any town. We lost Bill in 1995, but we still have his shrimp and grits. And while those who understand his culinary legacy still shake their heads at his demise, they'll never shake their heads at another plate of shrimp and grits. When I was in college, Crook's was too expensive for my burritos budget, and I didn't care for grits anyway. I didn't realize what I had been missing until a few years ago, when I dragged Michael to Crook's to give him the proper Chapel Hill education, never mind that my own had a few holes in it. I took a deep breath and ordered the shrimp and grits, wondering if I could stomach a whole plate of mushified, pasty grits. But when the steaming platter of perfectly curled shrimp and pale brown gravy landed in front of me, I thought: what in the hell has been wrong with me? 

I cleaned my plate -- I won't say I didn't lick it -- and ever since that meal, I make sure to bring a bag of Crook's grits back to New York with me. It's caused some trouble with the T.S.A. people at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, but no matter. This stuff doesn't just show up at Fairway, you know.

So last night, we made Bill Neal's shrimp and grits. I turned the bacon, Stacey stirred the grits, Laura grated the cheese, Sarah Jane sliced the mushrooms and scallions, and Johanna put out the bowls and kept everyone's glasses filled. It was home. We were home.

Bill Neal's Shrimp and Grits
adapted from the Crook's Corner grits bag

1 pound shrimp, peeled and cleaned
6 slices bacon
2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms
1 cup sliced scallions
1 or 2 large cloves of garlic, depends on your taste
juice of one whole lemon
hot sauce (Tabasco and Texas Pete are good; do steer away from the Sriracha variety)
chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
1 recipe of cheese grits (below)

Clean the shrimp, wash them and pat them dry.

Cook the bacon over medium heat until crispy. Drain the bacon on a paper towel, and leave the grease in the pan -- you'll need it.

If there's not enough bacon grease in the skillet to cover it, add a little peanut or canola oil and turn the heat back up to medium. When it's hot again, add the shrimp and stir around. As the shrimp starts to turn pink, add the mushrooms and stir for a few minutes. Add the scallions and garlic, and cook until the whole thing is done, but not overcooked. Season to taste with the lemon juice, hot sauce, parsley and salt and pepper. Spoon it all over the cheese grits (it's easiest to do it in individual bowls), crumble the bacon over it and serve immediately.

(A note for those avoiding meat: we cooked a portion of the shrimp mixture in oil instead of bacon grease, and I can say with confidence that they're good either way. Just depends on your preference.) 

for the grits:

4 cups water
1 cup grits, not quick-cooking
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tbsp. unsalted butter (not margarine. Butter.)
1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 tsp. cayenne, or to taste
a few grates of fresh nutmeg (please avoid the already grated stuff. It tastes like licking the floor.)

Bring the water to a boil. Stir the grits in slowly, and reduce the heat and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the grits are thickened and cooked all the way through. Stir frequently, making sure to get rid of any lumps. Stir in the butter, cheeses and spices, until all are melted into the grits. Keep warm and put aside.

Serves four.