The Waiting Game

December 29, 2010 § 3 Comments

My friend, Ben and I have been cinnamon roll fanatics for a long time. We used to meet in Minneapolis, order a bun the size of a healthy grapefruit, and merrily consume all that butter, frosting, and sugar. Ben moved to Portland, Maine about two years ago, but he’s home in snow-covered Minnesota for the holidays, so we arranged a rendez-vous at my house. We decided on a project: homemade cinnamon rolls. Between exchanging news, we molded together the ingredients for the dough, then kneaded it for a good 20 minutes.

“It has to pass the ‘window test’ before we can let it rise,” Ben says, and pinches a nob of dough from the boule we’ve been pounding. He stretches it and it tears. “See how that tears so easy? That means we need to keep kneading our dough,” he says, pressing the failed window test back into the dough. I nod. This is serious business. When Mom made cinnamon rolls, I have no recollection of this test. It would have meant more work. More kneading. So instead of testing our dough, Mom and I would use the “eyeball-it method,” wherein we basically give the dough a stern look, check for gross oddity, and if there is none–then we say, “good ’nuff” and leave the stuff to rise. A total mystery.

Is it possible that as we get older we divide into two camps: one that uses the “window test,” and another that “eyeballs”? Precision versus guesswork? Propriety versus looseness? Measuring spoons versus inexact dashes and pinches? And which am I? Can we be both?

Ben understands the chemistry that’s happening inside that dough that we’re kneading, and he’s baking these rolls as a scientist and food perfectionist/appreciator/gourmand. I’m baking these rolls as a…what? A free spirit-gourmande with a rumbling stomach.There’s something else going on here, too. Ben wasn’t at all trying to rush the rolls. He just wanted the rolls to turn out the best that they possibly could. He was looking for correct execution. And I was…getting hungry. Baking these rolls, for me, became an exercise in patience. Waiting for the dough to rise, rolling out the dough, sprinkling it with cinnamon and sugar, rolling it, slicing it, letting those slices double in size in a warm oven, then finally, FINALLY: baking them. They did turn out beautifully when all was said and done. But man, I swear: it’s one of the hardest things in the world. Patience.

The anticipation builds and you get ravenous. You grow claws. Something is going to get ripped to shreds while you’re waiting. You get anxious. Panicked, even. And the more conscious you are of the time it’s taking to get what you want, the crazier and more irrational you become.

I was so crazy that I decided to try and slow cook an egg in the oven at 170 degrees. I had read somewhere that it turned out “velvety” when you did this. We looked in on the egg as we waited for the dough.

Gee, I can’t say that was the most exciting kitchen experiment. But we ate it with some salt and pepper. (And hoped we wouldn’t get salmonella poisoning.)

Then we looked around for the next thing to do as the clock continued to tick. We happened upon a recipe for Morning Glory Breakfast Cookies. A recipe that essentially asks you to clean out your pantry and fridge, then pour all those things into a bowl with some butter, sugar, and flour. Everything from carrots, to apples, to coconut, to raisins and craisins, to walnuts and orange zest. We feasted on these cookies to distract us. (At this point in the day, we had been at it for about 3 or 4 hours.)

Distractions and slow-cooked eggs aside…

When those rolls were finally, finally in front of us, golden brown and perfect, Ben did an appalling thing and informed me, very matter-of-fact, that we were going to have to wait another 10 minutes. My jaw dropped. There is nothing, but nothing, I wanted more in the world at that moment more than one of those perfect cinnamon rolls drizzled in orange-scented vanilla frosting. (5 hours had elapsed!) How do you stay composed when you’ve been waiting so long for something you’ve wanted so bad? It’s like this: cinnamon rolls are a perfect metaphor for life in the waiting line. Look at us 20-somethings, as far as careers go, we’re all working so hard to knead the dough, hoping it will rise, anticipating something that will be worth our while if we can just stay patient. I’ve been doing this, as have all of my friends. We’ve been pushing around this dough, warming it with our hands, unsure about what kind of chemistry is happening underneath all of that material and between so many ticking minutes (read: months and years). We sprinkle some sugar on top, bake and hope that when we finally, finally get to taste a bite of what we’ve been patiently waiting for, it will have been worth every second. And so, as we round the corner into a new year, maybe we can learn that patience usually pays off. If you have good intentions, if you’re generous, and you surround yourself with good people—well, it’s hard to screw that recipe up.

(Oh, and if you couldn’t tell by looking at the pictures, those cinnamon rolls were amazing and worth every single minute that passed between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.)

Pe-can’t Believe They Disappeared So Fast!

December 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Pecans in any way, shape or form are a favorite of mine. Try pulsing them with powdered sugar, baking them into a salty-sweet shortbread cookie. They vanished as soon as they settled onto the wire rack to cool. Home for the holidays.

This year it seems like I left my body in France. Taking too much brain with me. All I do is ponder, stare out the windows of my folks’ house at the trees weighed down with snowfall. It’s better to throw those thoughts into the food processor along with my toasted pecans. Do something productive! Make something delicious! And so I relocate a recipe that Jess gave me a few weeks ago, guaranteeing a crowd-pleaser. Dude. She was so right. Jacques, my little plastic friend, even helped me cut out the cookies. (It’s the little things in life, really.)

And so, I spent the afternoon baking cookies. Brushing them with egg whites, dotting their “i’s” with a single pecan. In and out of the oven went pan after pan, and so–I added to the plethora of cookies already filling the kitchen. My mom had a cookie exchange with some friends and neighbors a week ago, and the left-overs from that soirée are hiding inside tuperware containers in drawers, cupboards. Even in the garage. My Pecan Sables sat on a plate for approximately 24 hours. I, too, disappeared fast. From France.

It’s been exactly one week since I left Toulouse. My flight took off at 6:40 AM. X brought me to the airport around 5. The city was solid black. It was apocalyptic. Silent. Not another person to be seen. The highways on the way to Blagnac Airport were vacant. The airport itself had more life. There were at least a few bodies milling about, but not much conversation.

It was totally surreal. I said a sleepy goodbye (one that I was too distant to process), got onto my airplane, and was promptly snatched out of the country. We can gobble shortbread cookies, we eat vast quantities of holiday sweets…

Places, too, can gobble us up. Sometimes spit us out. It feels nice to be gobbled.

While I Was Sleeping

December 21, 2010 § 1 Comment

“He would get these far-off looks in his eyes and he would say ‘Life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan’. I just wish I’d realized at the time, he was talking about MY life.”

Okay.

That’s a quote from an old classic. Well, I considered it a classic for a time anyway. It’s the 1995 film While You Were Sleeping starring Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman. I was reminded of it because it takes place around the holiday season, and I really want to revisit some Christmas cinema. (I don’t particularly want to revisit Bill Pullman’s hair though. I couldn’t stand his hair, the way he tossed it around all the time.) I thought of Lucy (Sandra Bullock) as I stared out the airplane window yesterday. I unwrapped my “plane food” (the delectable morsels in the drawing above and photos below): Coconut Chocolate Cookies. I unwrapped them from their tinfoil and bit into one. I’m flying through the heavens, surrounded by clouds, and I’m in heaven with these cookies. They were the last batch of cookies I baked while in Toulouse. I was looking for a big bag of sweetened coconut flakes. You know the kind: super-moist and perfect for macaroons and different sweet breads. I visited my local Casino Supermarket, but could only find this very-fine, sawdust-esque coconut. It turned out to be ideal when combined with the very rich butter and dark chocolate squares. Strange. I photographed these cookies (the last three that survived the 15 hours of travel between Toulouse, Brussels, Chicago, and Minneapolis) in the kitchen of my folks’ Lake Elmo home. And they were made in a small kitchen in an apartment in Toulouse.

The French kitchen: dim and full of tea light candles. Cold tiles. Miscellaneous kitchen accoutrement. Dishes and wooden spoons that didn’t match. There was a gazinière (gas oven) that baked a mean batch of coconut-chocolate cookies. And I had my ever-willing, enthusiastic cookie-taster at my beck and call. I left my cookie-taster when I left Toulouse. (Insert sad-face emoticon here.)

The above photo was taken Bar du Matin in the Carmes quartier of the city. It was one of our last apéros together before my flight home for the holidays. Walking in the chilly Toulousian streets, we pass pedestrians carrying sacs of Christmas cadeaux, stands selling roasted chestnuts and Nutella slathered waffles. In Place du Capitole, we look up at the nearly full moon and X told me there was going to be a lunar eclipse in the next couple of days.

I was really excited! It was slated to happen the day after I left France. But you know what?

I slept right through it. When I arrived home last night, coconut crumbs clinging to my clothes and chocolate in the corners of my mouth, the fatigue of travel hit me with the force of a Minnesota blizzard, and I fell into a deep sleep.

“Do you believe in love at first sight? Nah, I betcha don’t, you’re probably too sensible for that. Or have you ever, like, seen somebody? And you knew that, if only that person *really* knew you, they would, well, they would of course dump the perfect model that they were with, and realize that YOU were the one that they wanted to, just, grow old with. Have you ever fallen in love with someone you haven’t even talked to? Have you ever been so alone you spend the night confusing a man in a coma?” (While You Were Sleeping)

I don’t remember what I dreamed of, but I woke up around 5 in the morning, ate one of my last coconut cookies, drank a cup of coffee, and marveled at the oddity of place-shifting. How strange to spend one day with feet planted on European soil, then–to pick those feet up, carry them over an ocean, and plop them down in 3 feet of Minnesota snow. How strange that the sun, the moon, and the earth can align and paint the moon pink. How sad and strange to sleep through something like that. To think of all that occurs and continues to occur while your eyes are shut.

Deep thoughts inspired over a coco-choco cookie. Thoughts: blurred, refracted, flavored with sawdust coconut and chocolate–hurled between the sun, the moon, Europe and America. And, most strange of all–echoes of Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman in the background.

Peter once asked me when I fell in love with Jack. And I told him, “It was while you were sleeping.”

Where Am I?

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