Archive for December 2010

Red Velvet Days

December 30, 2010

I hate taking down the tree, and always leave it up until after New Year’s Day.  Beppo helped me put it up, but I fear he won’t be a lot of help on the way down. A lifelong heathen, it’s the color and brightness of Christmas that I love.  I’m always reluctant to give that up, packing away the light and settling into Darkest Winter.

It’s the only time this year that we had oysters and Champagne, and although we made up for that by having them two nights in a row, I’m sorry to set aside their utter luxury and festivity.

With “the kids” here for Christmas it was the first and last homemade pasta of the year, although it’s something we used to do fairly often, when more of us were around the nightly table. I hate to give up that larger dinner circle too, even though our sons are way past the age of needing us to feed or fend for them.

And when but Christmas would I get to bake Red Velvet Cupcakes?  Even though I no longer eat them, I remember how delicious they are, in all their shocking crimson beauty. I’d love to be able to have one again sometime, but even if I can’t, you can. Please do eat an extra one for me.

This recipe is adapted from one I found on years ago, and as far as I know it’s just about perfect.

Red Velvet Cake

2 1/2 c sifted cake flour
2 c sugar
2 T cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 c buttermilk
3 eggs
1 T cider or white vinegar
1 tsp vanilla
1 oz red food coloring
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 c canola oil

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Combine wet ingredients in a medium bowl.  Mix together and stir until smooth.

Pour into 2 8″ round cake pans or 18-20 muffin cups.  Bake at 300°, 40 minutes for cake layers, a little less time for cupcakes. Frost with this basic cream cheese frosting.


1 stick butter
1 tsp vanilla
8 oz cream cheese
1 lb powdered sugar
dash of salt

Sift the sugar well before creaming ingredients together until fluffy.  I do this in the stand mixer for the best texture.
News From The Mixing Bowl – We Have a Winner! The winner of the absolutely fair and random name-drawing for Italian Desserts is Eden.  I’ll be contacting you for shipping information, and my thanks to the rest of you for entering.

The Gift

December 24, 2010

You guys do remember that I’m taking all these recent pictures with just one hand, right?  So, sometimes the photos are not so hot, but I post them anyway because they’re the best I could do all by myself, like a big girl, and that’s what counts to me.  And paradoxically, at the same time that I’ve been cultivating this me do it attitude, I also get daily lessons in humility that remind me how dependent I am upon others right now.

For example, it’s not only in the movies that trees fall over when you’re in the middle of decorating them.  In this case Shel had put the tree in the stand and gone off to Seattle, after securing my assurance that there was no trouble I could possibly get into while decorating the tree one-handed. But, inevitably, gravity had its way with me and I found myself with a half-decorated tree that had fallen over, and powerless to do anything about it one-handed.

An emergency phone call produced Tom and Louise who sawed and tugged and set the tree back upright.  I was beyond thrilled that they had saved the day, and they, apparently were thrilled to be called upon to help.  People really do want to help, and even though I’m more of a helper than a helpee, I now have to let myself be helped every day with the most mundane of tasks.

But I was bound and determined that I could decorate the tree by myself.  We were in Europe for the past three Christmases, so I hadn’t seen my ornaments for four years. My tree is always the least chic, most eclectic jumble imaginable.  I have this little Santa and a host of other little people that I made from an elaborate  kit back when Jordan was a baby. A red feather given to me by Kathy.

A little bunny that I made one year when I was too poor to buy any ornaments, let alone a kit to make them. Christmas tree as time travel.

My multicultural sari-clad angel has recently risen to the top, following the demise of a large gilded Mexican bird that used to reside there.

These snuggle up comfortably with large red foil spiders left from my own childhood tree, an onion ornament left from the days before I was a cook, a ferry boat ornament left from before the days when we lived on an island, a slice of gold-sprayed dried orange turned ornament, left from Jordan’s kindergarten class 30 years ago, a bit of everything from my life to date, except that there’s nothing French hanging there.  When we go back to France in the spring I’ll be looking for things to adorn next year’s tree.

But the real gift has been having this opportunity to become a child again. Still sleeping in the recliner three weeks after my surgery, this is the view from my improvised bed.  A childhood dream, the tree looming over my pillow, presents heaped at my feet, Shel to tuck me into my nest every night and turn out the light.  Shel having learned to scrunch gel into my hair, choose my earrings and fit them into the little holes in my ears.  Shel who put a glass of fresh water by my bed every night, next to a little bowl of pills. Shel who chops the onions and does the laundry, Shel who lays the fire and plays the guitar when I feel like singing.

All this and much, much more Shel does for me every day that I may regain the full and painless use of my shoulder. He cares for me as you do for a child, but he treats me like an adult. The shoulder is my gift from Shel, and Shel is my gift from the universe. It’s ok, Santa, there’s no need to stop at our house, my gift’s already here.

Gorgeous Italian Desserts

December 21, 2010

‘Tis the season to be sweet, and here’s just the book to help you delight friends, family, and guests with some unusual treats.  Irene Doti’s book Italian Desserts, Dolce Memories offers such recipes as Apricot Marsala Biscotti, Amaretti, Cucciddati (those fabulous Sicilian fig and nut cookies), Panforte di Siena, Lemon-Ricotta Filled Panettone, Ferrarese Chocolate Cake, Pear-Rum Crostata, Spumoni, Tuscan Meringue with Strawberries, and Calabrian Wine Fritters.

Ready to dive into the world of Italian sweets? Then just leave a comment saying so.  If several people would like this book, I’ll put your names in a mixing bowl, give them a good stir, and draw one. I’ll send it to you and I’ll ask you to pay for the postage, if you can, via PayPal. For security and anti-spam reasons, please don’t put your email address or snail mail address in the Comments section.  When you comment I see your email address and I’ll contact you soon if I draw your name.  Give this book a good home, make something delicious from it, and I’ll be happy.

My Cup Is Full

December 17, 2010

Carrie and Santiago sent roses from Argentina, Kathy and John sent dinners from Santa Barbara, Debra, Conni, and Mikki, a veritable gaggle of personal chefs, showed up to stock our freezer and warm our hearts, somehow this one-handed life is getting sweeter by the minute. I want to give something back to all who have helped us, but, of course, I have only one hand and it can’t give much.  It can still write, though, and here is what it wrote the other day, as surprising to me as I hope it will be to you.

I should say that it’s not about anyone or anything real, just the purest message from my imagination on viewing a painting of figures on the beach, a ten minute writing exercise.


Lei me down in a field of flowers, a wreath around my bronzed neck, my lei day is upon me while all around me lounge lazily, lei-less.

Oh lei me again, Sam, you who weren’t afraid to wear flowers, piling leis all over my body and diving in, the scent of plumeria intoxicating, our love sultry and salty, a by the sea sort of love that washed away one day on the ebb tide.

We wove hundreds of leis for your funeral and I set each one gently down on the bier that stood in for your sweet body, never returned to me, resting now somewhere beneath the waves. We cast those leis adrift with our prayers for your peace, but what about my peace I wanted to scream. No lei shall touch my silken nakedness now that you are gone, and yet the flowers speak to me still, gather me, lei me, and I cannot resist their call, stringing them, sometimes carelessly, sometimes with remembered passion, and sell them to heedless tourists on the beach.

Oh lei me down,  in the waters so deep, my love rests so far from land, oh lei me again, my own dear Sam, in the ocean’s cool sheltering hand.

Five-Handed Holiday Baking

December 13, 2010

“Stop using my bird’s beak to clean your ball peen!” I shrieked at Shel late last night, as we put the finishing touches on our holiday gift baking. Shel, our friend Anne, and I had spent two evenings together making tri-colored sprinkle-laden orange spritz cookies, bourbon-laced salt and sugar glazed pecans with a touch of Aleppo pepper, truffle-lookalike bourbon balls, and stand up and fight over it coffee-walnut toffee.  Shel had filled in for my useless right hand on manly tasks like operating the cookie press, chopping ingredients that required a big, sharp knife, and whacking a four pound block of toffee into bite-sized pieces using the afore-mentioned ball peen hammer.  And then he got in the doghouse for scraping lingering sticky bits from the hammer using my expensive and delicate bird’s beak knife. But only momentarily.

Anne and I chopped and mixed and stirred and sprinkled and weighed and measured and bagged and bowed in perfect harmony, her two good hands more than making up for my one fumbling one.  Her reward was to be Chief Taster, because I don’t eat or even taste these treats.  And believe me when I say that she applied herself to the tasting job assiduously, tasting and re-tasting until she was sure that every morsel was worthy of being tucked into a shiny gift bag and handed over to some dear friend.

We giggled like schoolgirls while weighing out the pecans and the toffee, trying to give each of the bags an even portion, counting cookies and bourbon balls and re-checking our calculations far too many times. In the end, despite our best efforts, the toffee came out ahead.  One large bag full of toffee stood alone, and Anne and I scratched our heads, trying to think of which of our friends merited this stupendous treat.

Just then Shel wandered into the kitchen to nibble from the small stash of toffee that we had set aside for him. “Did we leave you enough?” Anne and I asked, seeing his ecstatic expression.  “Sure,” he replied, “this is plenty.”  And then, after a couple more bites, a Christmas miracle occurred.  Normally Shel has a lamentable tendency to put the needs of others ahead of his own, and I’m sure he’d previously been thinking only of our friends, when he suddenly burst out with “No, it’s not enough toffee.  That stuff is so good.” And so, without a moment’s hesitation, we awarded the large bag of toffee to Shel and Shel alone, his richly deserved reward for all his help and good cheer at ceding the kitchen for two rainy nights to a pair of chocolate-dusted giggling girls who, in between drinking wine and dining on lasagne and roast chicken and creamed Brussels sprouts, managed to produce a hell of a nice collection of sweet treats.

You want to make this toffee, you know you do.  And you can. Click here for  Orangette’s beautiful recipe, as my one-handed typing is giving out. What I do is double the recipe, which is a bit of work to make, so you might as well make a ton. A double recipe will perfectly fill a half-sheet pan. And with a double recipe, I find that the toffee needs to simmer for 55 minutes to get to 290°.  Don’t even think of undercooking it, just do as I did: get yourself a glass of wine and a pair of comfy slippers and prepare to stir the pot for most of an hour.  It’s a perfect job for a one-handed baker. And you can believe Shel, the results will be well worth it.

Half In The World

December 10, 2010

Now that I’ve gotten about half of the post-operative narcotics out of my life, I can do about half of the things I want to do, given that I only have one half of my normal complement of hands to work with.  I can eat a ripe cheese straight from a dull knife, but I can’t spread it on anything nor use a sharper implement. I can go to the store but I can’t hand-write a grocery list nor drive there, I can’t hold a plastic produce bag and put shallots in it, it’s one or the other, and as a further indignity my cart-pushing skills are questionable.

I can put on my pants and shoes, but not my shirts and socks. That might be more of a visual than you really needed, but I’ll tell you that such modesty as I might ever have had has really gone out the window since I have to ask for help with these hitherto intimate tasks.  For heaven’s sake, I can’t even put on my own darn sling, now my frustratingly constant companion and source of many undesired sympathetic glances from utter strangers.

I can plan a menu, set and clear the table, but I can’t cook, except to stir the pot.  That actually has  a good side, as Shel is re-discovering that he enjoys cooking. I can feed Beppo and Zazou their cat crunchies by opening the bag with my teeth, but I can’t pop the top on their canned food. Since they are accustomed to grabbing their food directly with their teeth, they don’t look at me askance when I put the bag of Royal Canin in my mouth, but personally, I feel reduced to a weirdly primal level each time I do it. Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch.

So, enough about me.  Here’s something interesting about you.  This current cookbook giveaway drew more names in the hat than any other book I’ve ever posted, which strikes me as unusual, given that a lot of French Letters readers are here for the food. It is a very nice book, though, with a foodie spin on weight loss, so if you weren’t the lucky winner, you might want to seek out the book elsewhere. And without further ado:

News From The Mixing Bowl – We Have a Winner! The winner of the absolutely fair and random name-drawing for Great Cooking Every Day is Julie H..  I’ll be contacting you for shipping information, and my thanks to the rest of you for entering.

Cooking To Lose

December 6, 2010

Since I’m confined to one-handed typing for the moment, I won’t say too much about this cookbook, but if the combination of Weight Watchers-approved recipes with Culinary Institute of America know-how appeals to you, then please enter your name for this cookbook giveaway and give this book a new lease on life.

Among this book’s 250 recipes are such temptations as Spicy Chicken Peanut Dumplings, Chinese Long Bean Salad with Tangerine and Mustard-Sherry Vinaigrette, Crab and Wild Mushroom Chowder, Caramelized Onion and Pancetta Pizza, Grilled Yellowfin Tuna with Citrus Salad, Whiskey-Glazed Smoked Turkey Breast with Orange Herb Conserve, Bolivian Beef Stew, Farro with Parsley and Toasted Almond Salsa, Maple-Pear Oatmeal Muffins, and Warm Strawberries with Frangelico, Frozen Yogurt, and Shortcake.

Sound delicious, nutritious, and like just what you need before the holidays? Then just leave a comment saying so.  If several people would like this book, I’ll put your names in a mixing bowl, give them a good stir, and draw one. I’ll send it to you and I’ll ask you to pay for the postage, if you can, via PayPal. For security and anti-spam reasons, please don’t put your email address or snail mail address in the Comments section.  When you comment I see your email address and I’ll contact you soon if I draw your name.  Give this book a good home, make something delicious from it, and I’ll be happy.

A Lopsided Life

December 3, 2010

I don’t know what this spider’s excuse is for being so off-center, but I sure know mine. I’m now the proud possessor of four small holes in my right shoulder which really don’t look like anything at all. Along with assorted stitchery there are also two metal anchors in the bone of my shoulder that are invisible to the naked eye, and I sure hope that I don’t get into any arguments with the TSA over them, because they’d have to kill me before I’d let them touch my shoulder the way it feels right now. The lightest touch yesterday brought me to tears, but the doctor told me to take more drugs, and so I am, and that does help. I’m still not up to a pat-down, but I can let Shel put my new blue flannel pyjamas on me without biting his ear off in a pain-crazed fit, so that’s saying something.

I do keep thinking about France, though.  How in France I’d be spending several days in the hospital, whereas here we arrived home just a couple of hours after my surgery. Of course, maybe in France I wouldn’t have had that pain pump catheter implanted in my shoulder at all, since the French don’t seem to be as pain-averse as Americans are.  But I can’t imagine a French hospital sending me home with a pump shooting numbing medicine directly into my inner shoulder every ten seconds, with instructions about how to remove said catheter myself after a couple of days when the medicine was all gone.  In the event, pulling the catheter out wasn’t nearly as bad as imagining the whole business in advance had been, and the minute it was out I wished it were back in again, with a great big refill, because I hadn’t really known what pain was until that little tube was out of there.  Basically it felt like a cement truck ran right over my shoulder. A fully loaded cement truck.

So now I have one arm that doesn’t work at all, tightly strapped to my chest except when I have to set it free to do my physical therapy exercises.  It’s probably laughable, to call moving your arm one puny little inch “exercise,” but my piteous mewlings, elicited by the least bit of movement, would wipe the smile off the face of anyone but an orthopedic surgeon, who’s heard it all before. And then I have one arm and hand that have heretofore lived the life of Riley, never being called upon for much.  It’s a hand that can’t outsmart a child-proof pill bottle, nor open a bottle of wine, thereby reducing me to feeling like a teenager all over again with my “hey baby, would you please feed me more drugs?” Or more like a toddler, with “would you please pull up my pants and put on my fuzzy striped socks?” I did manage to take a shower all by myself like a big grownup, if you don’t count the fact that I couldn’t dry my back, but hey, lots of people like to have someone dry their backs, so that part wasn’t too discouraging.

The surgeon says it all went perfectly, and all the doctors and physical therapists say that I just have to make it through the first couple of weeks and then I’ll start feeling better. They all tell me to take more drugs, lots of drugs, and so long as those pills don’t keep me from my pathetically slow and error-ridden left-handed typing, I’ll be swallowing them like clockwork.

I actually think I’m in better shape than that spider, because my home’s intact and warm, my freezer’s reasonably stocked with food I cooked in advance, my closet’s full of clothes that button up the front and a husband to button them for me, the wine rack is well-supplied, friends are calling and writing all the time with offers of help, and I have Shel to pull my pants up and down as many times a day as I want.  How lucky is that?