Crackin’ Down

February 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

Things have been serious lately. I mean, I’ve been taking inventory of all my furniture, all the bulky things and thoughts that fill the room of my life. Under my clear green visor, I’m counting with precision and not so much as a smirk.

Is it a seasonal thing catching up with me? My car, Chuck, was buried under a fresh mound of snow this week. Snow that canceled two rendez-vous of mine. This is serious. But it doesn’t have to be.

I like to think of Tom Robbins when life gets too stiff and constricted. He’s great to loosen things up, oil those joints, think outside the box, etc . Here’s something from Skinny Legs & All: “She decided that there were things in this world upon which it was best not to dwell lest they attach themselves to one’s keel like barnacles, and slowly cause one to leak, to list, and eventually to sink.”

So I’m sick of this straight jacket. There are a couple things I’d like to see: cracking of ice as it melts on the lakes and the cracking of more smiles. Oh look: crackers.

So, to spell out the very obvious metaphor here, I decided to make my own crackers. Half of them were plain and half had toasted sesame seeds in the dough. I’m a big fan of cheese and crackers (with all their fancy friends: olives, dried meats, dried fruit, jams and honey). Instead of ripping open another box of my old stand-by crackers, I made my own dough. I chilled the dough in the fridge for an hour or so, then rolled it out in long strips, coated it with a egg-and-soy-sauce wash, and threw them in the oven. Either I didn’t roll my dough thin enough (probably), or I added too much baking soda, because these guys had less of a crunch and crack, and more of a wimpy snap. Well if my crackers can loosen up, maybe I can too. Crackers, anyway, are just vehicles for different creamy cheeses and spreads. With that in mind, they turned out perfectly. That’s a blueberry stilton cheese on that plate. So good. Didn’t blend so well with sesame seeds and soy sauce, but went well with the plane-jane crackers.

I’ve got to say, it’s hard to shake off the winter numbness, the doldrums, the strict severity that comes with long days indoors, sitting down, looking outside. (Man, seriously, I think I’m suffering from a major case of seasonal depression!) But I’m determined to get sillier, go where the laughter is, and seek out the positive.

Let me close with this positively abstract drawing I made of my homemade crackers:

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Sweet Potatoes, Sweet Memories

February 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

Plunging temperatures in Minnesota. Ice fishing abounds on the lake outside my window. There’s activity out there on the tundra, but no way am I leaving this house or this sweatshirt unless I have to. Instead, I’m cozying up next to my space heater with a stack of old journals. If you keep journals then you know how black-hole-like they are. You start reading the fictions of your past, and you get sucked into your own stories, ideas, images, dramas.

The journals I was reading were from my formative France months. I have eight of them—some are thicker than others. All are full of wine bottle labels, ephemera found in the street, thoughts that tumbled out daily, and sketches of buildings and people. It’s easy to get pulled back into those books where you’ve documented such a departure in your life…

Between the pages, I stumbled upon a recipe that I’d noted, but never actually tried. For sweet potato muffins. The recipe was one I picked up when I visited Penzey’s on Hennepin Avenue in Uptown prior to leaving. Penzey’s is this incredible spice shop with every variation on traditional (and non-traditional) spices you could imagine. Next to the Venetian cinnamon, I found this recipe noted.

Since I am crazy about muffins, I think my heart skipped a beat when I scanned the list of ingredients. Carrot cake muffins drive me wild, so this one that called for another orange vegetable intrigued me. Mashed sweet potatoes, crushed pecans, raisins, cinnamon, nutmeg? Yes. Yes. And yes, please. I never had time to bake a pan before hopping on my plane for France Land, but last night I closed that gap. I peeled, boiled, and mashed a giant sweet potato, then combined it with all the good stuff: loads of butter and sugar, of course. I licked the batter off the spoon after tucking the muffins into the oven, and a memory from last year came flooding back to me.

My friend, Libby liked to eat the raw batter more than she enjoyed eating the finished product (cookies or pies or what-have-you). Libby was another American teaching English in theĀ French town where I lived. We lived in single apartments about 4 minutes from each other, so often she would walk across the Place Nationale and climb the stairwell to my kitchen where we would bake treats we missed back in the states. Chocolate chip cookies and the like:

It’s funny looking back on a year. February in Montauban, France was so different from February in Minnesota. I heard something on the radio the other day that noted the peculiarity—the downright abstraction and mystery—of getting onto a big metal airplane in one city then walking off in a completely different city. Different climates. Different languages. Different people and culture and food.

I sunk back into my journal-reading as I waited for the sweet potato muffins to finish. Remembering with curiosity how scared I was when I needed to call the plumber to visit my apartment and fix my broken faucet. How nervous I was with my French speaking. How enchanted it felt to wake up at 5am and go for a walk as the market stalls were being set up for a busy Saturday morning. Memories are real, can recast themselves like short IFC films when you jog them. The oven beeped, piercing the reverie.

I gotta say: wow. Thank you Penzey’s for giving me this awesome recipe. Glad that I noted it in the weathered pages of an old journal. Going back and revisiting the past can taste pretty sweet.

Sweet Potato Muffins

1/2 cup butter (soft) … 1&1/4 cup sugar … 2 eggs … 1&1/4 cup cooked, mashed sweet potatoes … 1/4 cup milk … 1&1/2 cup flour … 2 tsp baking powder … 1/4 tsp salt … 1 tsp cinnamon … 1/4 tsp nutmeg … 1/2 cup raisins … 1/4 cup chopped pecans (…) topping: 2 TB sugar … 1/4 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven 375 degrees. Cream butter. Gradually add sugar. Add eggs, one at a time. Stir in sweet potatoes and milk. In separate bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, & nutmeg. Add to creamed mixture, stirring just until moistened. Fold in raisins and pecans. Spoon batter into greased muffin tins (2/3 full). Mix together sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle on top of muffins. Bake at 375 for 25-27 minutes.

Makes about 20 muffins.

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