Archive for September, 2008

Friendship Honey Cake

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

 
One of the reasons that I love my mixed religious heritage (my mother is Christian, and my father was Jewish) is that I have extra holidays to celebrate.
 
I particularly enjoy the two traditions’ far apart and very different new-year markers.
 
The Christian New Year, just beyond the winter solstice, provides hope that spring will come, always a cheerful thought when it’s chilly outside. It gives us an excuse to light up the house on a dark winter night, to prepare something warm like onion soup or oysters, and to share wishes for the future with friends.
 
The Jewish New Year carries with it more religious importance than its Christian counterpart. It also feels newer. It falls in autumn, when we traditionally embark on new enterprises—school, diets, blogs (well, my blog, at any rate). Stretching out over ten days, it gives people time to get in touch with friends and family, to mull over the good and bad parts of the past year, and to get ready for the future. It is both introspective and social, somber and joyful.
 
Visiting my grandparents on Long Island for the High Holy Days was one of the highlights of my childhood. I loved sitting in the upper level of the Temple with my grandmother on Rosh Hashanah. The women kept track of what was going on downstairs, where the men (including my grandfather) went about the business of the shul.
My Grandfather, William "Wolf" Weisblat

My Grandfather, William (originally "Wolf") Weisblat (Courtesy of Bob Kraut)

 
The women also quietly gossiped and wished each other a happy new year, conducting their own social services to complement the religious ones below.
 
My grandmother was one of the social leaders of her community. I don’t mean that she was elegant or a trendsetter. She represented something far more valuable than either of those characteristics–a person to whom her neighbors turned for advice, for a friendly ear, for her large brain and heart. My family tells me that I look like her, and that I’m bossy like her. (I prefer such terms are assertive and knowledgeable.) I’d like to think that I have a little of her skill with people as well.
Sarah Hiller Weisblat in Her Youth (Courtesy of Bob Kraut)

My Grandmother, Sarah Hiller Weisblat, in Her Youth (Courtesy of Bob Kraut)

 
Whenever the Jewish New Year comes around, I like to remember my grandparents and their family with honey, a culinary highlight of this holiday. In the Jewish tradition, food is always more than just food. It’s a symbol of relationships and shared heritage. When we give our friends and relatives honey cake, we hope the gift brings them a sweet new year figuratively as well as literally.

William and Sarah's Children--Benny, Selma, and (my dad!) Abe (Courtesy of Bob Kraut)
William and Sarah’s Children–Benny, Selma, and (the baby, my dad!) Abe (Courtesy of Bob Kraut)
 
The recipe below comes from Micheale Battles, a busy attorney in the D.C. area who still finds time for cooking, family, and religious traditions. Her extended Passover Seder is legendary in northern Virginia. Michaele’s honey cake is called friendship cake because it makes two cakes—one to keep, and one to share with a friend. Michaele ALWAYS puts in the nuts, but I like the cake without them as well so I made them optional in my version of her recipe. The cake itself is dense and flavorful and tastes even better with a little fruit. The coffee in the recipe cuts the honey and makes the flavor subtle.
 
Michaele’s Rosh Hashanah Friendship Honey Cake
 
Ingredients:
 
1 pound honey (1-1/3 cups, according to my friends at Warm Colors Apiary)
1-1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup shortening of your choice (I used butter since I don’t keep Kosher!)
5 eggs, separated
3 cups flour, sifted
1 tablespoon baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons cinnamon or to taste
1/2 cup black coffee
1 teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in the coffee
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup chopped walnuts or toasted pecans (optional)
 

Instructions:
 
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease 2 loaf pans.
 
Cream together the honey, sugar, and shortening. Add the egg yolks, and mix well.
 
Stir together the flour, baking powder, and cinnamon. Add them to the honey mixture, alternating with the coffee/baking soda solution. Add the vanilla and the nuts (if you’re using them).
 
Beat the egg whites just until they hold a peak, and fold them into the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pans.
 
Bake for 1 hour (or a little less), or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cakes comes out dry. Begin looking at the cakes after 40 minutes.
 
If they look brown on the outside but are wet on the inside, turn the oven down to 300 degrees, and continue checking every 5 minutes until the toothpick test works.
 
Let the cakes cool in their pans for 20 minutes;then gently loosen them with a knife or a spatula, and slide them onto a rack to finish cooling. Makes 2 loaves.

Ninety Years in the Making

Thursday, September 25th, 2008
My Mother
My Mother

Tomorrow– September 26, 2008–my mother Jan turns 90. (Obviously, she was incredibly old when I was born since I’m only 39.)

For years and years she took care of me, exhibiting common sense, humor, and a complete inability to feel guilt. I have never been able to fathom that last characteristic. I feel guilty at the drop of a hat. If my mother makes a mistake, she says, “Oh, well”; apologizes; and promptly forgets about the whole matter. I think her non-guilt is one of the things that has kept her going all these years.
 
These days, of course, it would be fairer to say that we take care of each other. She had polio in the early 1950s, and her balance is far from good. She gets frailer by the month. She frequently forgets to eat (something I can’t imagine myself doing, alas, even at 90!). Consequently, she needs a little help getting around, fixing meals, turning on the television set (why is it that remotes become increasingly difficult to use even as the American population ages?), remembering which pills to take. I give that help cheerfully—most of the time.
 
She still helps me as well, however. When I’m cooking something challenging she pitches in in the kitchen, serving as sous chef and dishwasher. When I’m frazzled she calms me down. Best of all, she provides an example of cheer and grace I’d love to emulate. We don’t always agree, but we always appreciate each other.
 
jan-attacks-web2
 
The year after I graduated from Mount Holyoke College, I visited the campus and fulfilled one of my undergraduate dreams by attending the weekly faculty happy hour. I met Roger Holmes, a professor emeritus who had known my mother in the 1930s. I asked him whether he remembered her and rattled off her maiden name and graduation year. He sipped his drink, nodded, and murmured appreciatively, “Short and full of life.” Those five words still describe Jan Hallett Weisblat pretty darn well.
 
Here’s a pudding my mother entered in the 2006 Pudding Hollow Pudding Contest. She obtained the recipe from her mother, Clara Engel Hallett, who taught her to cook as Jan taught me to cook. It’s lovely and light—and tastes even better with key-lime juice and rind instead of lemon. I’m thinking of putting a candle on top and using it as a birthday cake tomorrow.
 
 

 
Clara’s Lemon Angel Pudding
 
Ingredients:
 
6 eggs, divided
1-1/2 cups sugar, divided
3/4 cup lemon juice
2 pinches salt
1 envelope gelatin, dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water
1/2 large (or 1 small) angel-food cake, broken into bite-sized pieces
1 cup heavy cream, whipped and sweetened
lemon peel for garnish
 
Instructions:
 
Beat together the egg yolks, 3/4 cup sugar, the lemon juice, and 1 pinch salt. Cook over a double boiler until the mixture thickens and coats a spoon. Remove the mixture from the heat, and stir in the dissolved gelatin.
 
Beat together the egg whites, remaining sugar, and remaining salt until stiff. Fold the whites gently into the custard mixture. In a trifle bowl (or another decorative bowl), alternate layers of the custard and pieces of cake, beginning and ending with the custard. Chill the mixture at least from morning to night, preferably for 24 hours.
 
Just before serving, cover the top with whipped cream, and grate some lemon peel on top for color. Serves 10.
 
For more information about the Pudding Hollow Pudding Contest, visit its web page.
 
Here’s a later update to this post, adding a couple of photographs from my mother’s 90th birthday party, which was a joyous occasion. The first photograph depicts my sister-in-law Leigh and my nephew Michael getting ready to decorate her birthday cake, or rather her birthday cakes; each of them decorated one! The second depicts the finished cakes. You can probably guess who decorated each. Leigh’s aesthetic philosophy is “less is more,” and Michael’s is “more is more.”
 
The final picture is one we all treasure, a photograph of my mother (left) with her younger brother Bruce Hallett and baby sister Lura Hallett Smith. We were thrilled to have all three siblings together for the celebration.
 

michael-and-leigh-decorate-web

cakes-web1

siblings-web1 

Harvest Time: Pepper Jelly

Saturday, September 13th, 2008

            Yesterday I made my annual batch (actually, batches!) of pepper jelly.

            When I first got out of graduate school in the 1990s, I canned on and off all summer. In fact, I sold jams, jellies, and vinegars in my mother’s antique shop in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.

            In recent years, however, my canning has gone downhill. I still make jam here and there as I can, but I don’t generally process it since processing takes time—something of which I seem to have less and less as the months and years flow by.

Generally, my jam gets stored in the refrigerator in large jars until I need it for family use. Sometimes it’s not even in jars: when I got ready to make the pepper jelly yesterday, I discovered that my large Dutch oven was in the downstairs refrigerator, filled with half-made strawberry jam from early July. I had to finish cooking the batch of jam before I could move on to my jelly.

Despite my retreat from canning, I still process pepper jelly every September. I have friends who would be hugely disappointed if they didn’t receive annual jars filled with this colorful, zesty concoction. And I enjoy the rhythm of my once-a-year jelly-making day.

            Yesterday was no exception. I sang along with the radio as my mother and I chopped peppers. I was extra careful with the jalapeños and didn’t even burn myself! Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Mercer kept us company and kept us chopping.

            The actual jelly-making doesn’t take long, but as long as I’m processing the jars I like to do it right, making sure that they’re sterilized, filling them with care, and gently boiling them after I fill them.

            (Readers who would like to know more about home canning should read the USDA publications on this topic, available from the National Center for Home Food Preservation at http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/publications_usda.html.)

            The end result of yesterday’s process is the flavor of early fall in a jar. Every year I think I’m going to use the pepper jelly in some new way, but generally I restrict myself to dabbing it over a schmear of cream cheese on a cracker. I never tire of this simple appetizer.

                                                                      –  Tinky

 

Tinky’s Pepper Jelly

Ingredients:

3 medium bell peppers, seeded and coarsely chopped (I prefer red, but any color will do.)

2 2-inch jalapeño or cayenne peppers, seeded and chopped (more if you’re adventurous!)

1-1/2 cups distilled vinegar

6-1/2 cups sugar

1 dab sweet butter

6 ounces (2 pouches) liquid pectin

Directions:
            Blend the peppers with 1 cup of the vinegar in a blender or food processor. Pour the blended mixture into a large non-aluminum pot, and add all the remaining ingredients except the pectin. Bring the mixture to a full, rolling boil; then stir in the pectin.

            Boil the jelly for 1 minute, stirring constantly, and remove it from the heat. Stir the mixture for 5 minutes as it begins to cool to distribute the chopped peppers evenly; then ladle it into sterilized jars. Place the jars in a boiling-water bath, and process them for 5 minutes. Makes at least 5 to 6 cups.

            From Tinky’s Pudding Hollow Cookbook. Copyright 2004, Merry Lion Press. For more recipes and information, visit Tinky’s web site, www.merrylion.com.

 
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September Song

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008
 
 

          Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December, but the days grow short when you reach September.

            “September Song” always comes into my mind and out of my vocal chords at this time of year. I sang it in the shower this morning and thought about the ways in which Kurt Weill’s music in this popular standard captures the emotions of early autumn.

            What works best about “September Song” is the tempo. As Maxwell Anderson’s lyrics in the song’s two verses remind us, September is the time of the year (and the time in our life, if we buy into the song’s metaphor of the calendar year as a stand-in for a person’s lifespan) at which the pace starts picking up, and human existence becomes particularly precious.

            The song’s singer/narrator is an older man recalling the days of his youth, days in which he waited patiently for love and life’s treasures to come his way. In September, he explains, we “haven’t got time for the waiting game.” Winter lurks right behind autumn. Death follows middle age.

            In contrast to this “gather ye rosebuds” mentality, Kurt Weill’s melody embraces and enhances the shortening days by belying the lyrics and taking its time. The song moves at a pace that seems lazy but is instead deliberate. Its mode is entirely conversational. In fact, it was premiered in 1938 by Walter Huston, a non-singer who talked his way through the piece. There simply isn’t any way to rush through this music. The joy of “September Song” for both a singer and an audience is its suspension of time.

            For the time it takes to sing the song, the old man character slows down the motions of the earth and the heavens–and makes a few moments in September seem to last forever.

            As I walk down the street with my dog Truffle on a sunny September day, I often feel the same sense of time suspended that “September Song” evokes. True, we see signs of age and of the onset of winter all around us. A maple tree starts to turn orange. The dammed-up mountain stream in which we swim grows cooler and more challenging. Sunset arrives earlier and earlier.

            We also feel signs of new beginnings, however. With summer’s heat gone, Truffle has a new spring in her step. And I somehow always find that  September is the ideal time for embarking on new projects—going on a diet, learning new music, starting a blog. Like the narrator of “September Song,” I know that I need to make stronger decisions than I did earlier in the year and in my life. Like him as well, I have faith in the power of art, nature, and sheer endurance to help humans embrace and extend the time we have.

            And these few precious days I’ll spend with you. These precious days I’ll spend with you.

                                                                               – Tinky

            To hear Walter Huston sing “September Song” in the musical Knickerbocker Holiday, visit http://beemp3.com/download.php?file=255209&song=September+Song. (Note that his lyrics are a little different from the standard version!)

 

Composer Kurt Weill Copyright 2003 Milken Family Foundation

Composer Kurt Weill Copyright 2003 Milken Family Foundation

Apple-Cranberry Salsa

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Photo Courtesy of Susan Hagen

Photo Courtesy of Susan Hagen

            This colorful salsa is adapted from a recipe published online by the Washington Apple Commission. For more recipes and nutritional information, visit http://www.bestapples.com/Recipes.

            I happened to have some frozen cranberries in the house so I used them to make fresh cranberry sauce, which always tastes better (and usually uses better ingredients) than the canned version. If your freezer isn’t stocked and cranberries are out of season, however, you may use canned sauce.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

the juice of 1 large lime (or 2 small ones)

2 cups chopped apple (2 large apples, more or less; core them, but don’t peel them)

1 cup cranberry sauce, preferably homemade

1 small red onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, carefully stemmed, seeded and chopped (if you like things spicy, use more; if you don’t, use a milder pepper)

several sprigs of fresh cilantro, chopped

1 pinch salt

Directions:
            In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar, and lime juice. Bring the liquid to a boil, and stir in half of the chopped apple pieces.

            Return the mixture to the boil, cover the pan, reduce the heat, and simmer until the apples almost soften (this will happen very quickly, in about 5 minutes). Mash the apples until they are soft but still have a little texture. Remove the mixture from the heat, and stir in the cranberry sauce. Let cool for 10 minutes.

            Stir in the remaining apple plus the onion, pepper, cilantro, and salt. Let the mixture sit for at least half an hour to allow the flavors to blend. Serve with tortilla chips or as a condiment to accompany meat, vegetables, or fish. You may refrigerate any leftovers for up to 3 days. Makes about 2-1/2 cups.