Monday, March 29, 2010

orangette brownies

I was inspired to begin writing this blog after stumbling across the food blog Orangette. I read the author's words and studied her photography and thought, "I bet I could do that!" At the time, Molly Wizenberg, creator of Orangette, had not only built a loyal readership, she had wooed editors at Simon and Shuster as well as Bon Appetit, had met and married her future husband through the blog, and was on the cusp of becoming a restauranteur with said husband. To say that her blog is a success is a bit of an understatement.

Once I began writing, and shooting all of my early photographs with my trusty iPhone, I saw that not only did blogging NOT come with an immediate rise to fame, it was quite a bit of hard work as well. Although the blog itself has evolved into territory I didn't really anticipate, I still love writing about and taking pictures of food. I'm pretty sure I'll never be a cookbook author or a columnist in Bon Appetit, but as a person who loves to read about, think about, and create homecooked wonderfulness (or something like it) every day, I'm still going to be a food blogger, at least now and then.

So, in honor of the blog that inspired me to start this journey, here are some Orangette brownies, inspired by the French confection of the same name and adapted from several brownie recipes, including one in my trusty Moosewood Cookbook. These brownies feature that lovely, nearly indescribable intersection between orange and chocolate. They aren't too sweet and, based on actual scientific research (and by this I mean a group of my closest friends and their kids), are appealing to both adults and children.

Orangette Brownies

5 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
2 sticks butter, room temperature
1 and 1/4 cups brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup white sugar
5 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
zest of one orange
1 cup toasted and coarsely chopped almonds
1/2 cup flour

Preheat oven to 350. Gently melt the chocolate per package instructions and set aside to cool. Cream the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, reserving the wax paper butter wrappers to grease your 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Stir in the vanilla and orange zest. Slowly stir in the flour, stirring just enough to combine. Fold in the almonds. Spread into the prepared pan.

Bake for 20 - 25 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve while still warm, with a smile and your loftiest aspirations.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

tiny paper bird

When I was pregnant, my chiropractor, who ended up having a significant and very positive impact on my pregnancy and birth experience, told me that she would love to give birth again, but she wasn't so sure about raising another child. At the time, standing on the precipice of the greatest unknown any woman will ever face, I could not understand what she was saying. In almost every form - literature, film, television, stories told by strangers in grocery stores - birth is depicted as the most difficult, painful, unpleasant, frightening experience one can go through. Not having experienced childbirth or child rearing yet, I could not imagine that raising a child could be more difficult than giving birth to one.

My own childbirth experience, it turns out, was actually quite beautiful. That is not to say that it wasn't difficult, painful, at times unpleasant, or frightening, because it was all of these things. But it was also the most magical, powerful, earth-shattering, life-changing thing I have ever been privileged to experience. I remember absolutely everything about that day, and I hope I never, ever forget it. And I can say in complete honesty that I look forward to doing it again someday.

Amazing experiences aside, raising a child is, at least from where I sit now, far more difficult than giving birth. Even on the most perfect of days, it is trying, tiring, exasperating. It's also lovely and beautiful - but as often as it is pleasant it is unpleasant. Yesterday was just such a day. It was a sunny, beautiful day. We had a sweet walk around the block with the dogs, admiring the daffodils, staring up at the weeping cherries on Blue Ridge that will soon be impossibly beautiful in their soft pink blooms. We played in the rock pile with the sand toys, sun shining on our backs.

We came inside and Dora watched the Muppets while I made dinner. The food took longer than I had hoped, and we had already gotten a late start. We were both growing hungry and tired. Bedtime got pushed back later than it should. We had to skip her bath due to the late hour. The night ended with a time-out before bed, Dora in the entrance-way crying and me in the kitchen, sipping a glass of wine and watching the timer on the microwave count down. As we sat in her room for our last goodnight snuggle, I found myself overcome with grief, missing my mom as I often do when things aren't going so well.

Sometimes the hardest thing about being a parent is admitting you need help, or the days that come when you know you need to ask for it. Sometimes the hardest thing about being a parent is discovering the things you want for your child but don't or can't have - financial security, health, a clean house, a perfect marriage, a job you can explain to a toddler, a grandma Carol.

I've been blessed by friends and family that have helped me in so many ways - with food, or childcare, or simple understanding. There is nothing quite so comforting as being able to tell a friend what a terrible night you had with your kid, and hearing not only that they think that's ok, but that they did, too. Even strangers sometimes give us what we need - the sympathetic mom at the grocery store, the man at the car wash helping me load the car seat back into the car, the waitress at the sushi restaurant who loves Dora, who brings her treats and tiny paper origami birds.

That's the thing about parenting - and birth - that have surprised me the most. It's like it gives you a new set of eyes to see the world through - eyes that can see so much more detail, both the good and the bad. You see the hurdles and the challenges and the bedtimes punctuated with time-outs with greater clarity. You see the tragedies of the world in a new light, as they impact other people's children and you imagine how your heart would break if it was your child being impacted (or perhaps it IS your child). But you see the beauty, too - the support of friends and family, the value in admitting you need help, the privilege of helping someone else in turn, the beauty of a tiny scrap of paper folded with skilled hands. If nothing else, becoming a parent has given me a new perspective, one that I know I am blessed to have, even on the most difficult of days.

Monday, March 22, 2010

something special

I remember the first time someone who was not an immediate family member or close family friend complimented one of my photographs. I was is in high school, participating in a summer program called Governor's Scholars, and had a black and white photograph of some morning glories in a student show at the end of the program. These were the days when we shot film, and developed it ourselves, and printed it ourselves. The morning glories were growing against the exterior of my parent's house - the soft curves of nature juxtaposed against the hard lines of human settlement. An older gentleman came up to me and commented on the image, noting that I had quite an eye. Later, my mom told me who he was - the director of the College of Fine Arts at Ohio University.

There is nothing quite like getting the approval of someone who isn't obligated by blood or relationship to provide it to you. That is not to say that encouragement, love, support, and kind words from friends, colleagues, and acquaintances isn't important, because it really, really is. It's amazing to me that my friends and family somehow seem to know just when I need a boost. I can be feeling really, really low about the blog, or about my writing or photographs, or things in general, and out-of-the-blue I get a lovely encouraging comment, a complimentary email I wasn't expecting, a vote of confidence from someone who doesn't even know how much I need it. But when someone outside of your circle gives you that boost, it feels a little bit different, makes you feel like maybe you do have something unique to say, or something special to offer, or an eye that brings new perspective to the world.

About a week ago, I approached someone electronically who I don't know well and asked for a chance to chat with her about being a writer. I love writing this blog - and am committed to continuing it - and I also feel like maybe I have something more to say, something that I'd like to see reach a wider audience. We all dream about doing something different - and for me, I dream now and then of making a career out of my creative aspirations - writing, crafting, photography. I don't think it's a bad thing in any way to want to do something you love every day - in fact, isn't that what we should all be aspiring to? And aspirations aren't a bad thing either. I thought perhaps chatting with someone doing just that would help me sort through some ideas.

Though the initial response was positive, the next day I was surprised to find a blog post by this author ranting - and that was a word she used - about people who want advice about writing. Of the many opinions and frustrations aired in the essay, the one that most caught my eye was critical of people who want to publish books. The author asks why people can't be satisfied by writing for the sake of writing. I found that to be an interesting comment coming from someone who herself is a published author, no doubt making a living from writing, speaking about her writing, and the like.

I felt disheartened by this response, mostly because it hadn't been given to me directly - I'd much rather have received an honest answer about a busy schedule, or a plain disinterest in talking to yet another aspiring author. But it also hurt because, at least for a few days, I contemplated her words with the sort of negative self-view that is easily sprouted from someone else's criticism. Criticism, it seems, is equally as powerful as encouragement, if only in the opposite direction.

The truth is, I've done a lot of creative things for the sake of doing them - and for other reasons - for a long time. I've been a photographer since I got my first camera - a red Pentax point-and-shoot - from my parents as a kid, when I shot frame after frame of every animal around me. I've been a writer since I got a letter to the editor published in Cricket magazine when I was about 8 years old. I've been an artist since I sat at the kitchen table drawing, or painting, or making something out of playdough. I've been a knitter since I sat by my mother's bedside while she battled cancer, searching for a pastime we could explore and share together even as her strength waned. I've done all these things for the sake of doing them, for the love of the people who inspired me to do them, for the pure enjoyment of putting pen to paper, or light to photographic emulsion, or needle to yarn. On rare occasions, I have done these things for profit - even successfully. There has been value - and pride - in doing those things each time, no matter what the reason, no matter what my motivations might mean to anyone else.

I'm married to an artist - a musician who is making his way in the world peddling his craft. He plays music because he loves to - for the sake of playing - and because he wants to make a living at it. I have no illusions or romantic misunderstandings about how difficult this is. Owning your own business is hard. Making a living creatively means working, every single day, and sometimes losing a bit of your love for your craft because you have to do it even when you don't feel like it.

In spite of that knowledge, I'm about to being a new venture I'm very excited about - creating for more than just the sake of creating. With the support and partnership of my great friend Mandy, I'm branching out into a little side business - a craft venture - to see where it can take us. Stay tuned for more information on how we'll be peddling these wares - and in the meantime check out our website. I'll be doing this - as well as my regular job, and writing this blog, and taking pictures (and being a mom and a wife and a friend and a foodie) - for the sake of doing it, and to pay the bills, and to answer some unanswerable question within, and to see where it leads. To me, that's something special, no matter what anyone else thinks.

Friday, March 19, 2010


It officially feels like spring, finally. I had a meeting today an hour and a half away, at a lower elevation. On the drive over, I saw the seasons progress. This morning it was cold, a cloudless blue sky at sunrise, marked with only the searing white contrails of four planes heading west. The sunrise as I came over Old Fort Mountain was breathtaking. Coming down the mountain, the sun was warmer, the season further progressed. Not only were the daffodils blooming yellow along the interstate, but the cherry trees glowed pink as well.

My absolute favorite flowers are daffodils. I love the way they signify the arrival of spring, our annual reminder of the season of new beginnings. I love how strong and faithful they are - returning every year, over and over again. I love that they are simple, and unassuming, and bright sunny yellow. I love that you can find daffodils marking old homesteads, lining paths long gone in abandoned coal mining towns, bordering front stoops now found only in memory and photograph. We gave out daffodil bulbs as our wedding favors, and I love to think that every year at this time, a little reminder of our lovely day arrives in the yards and gardens of friends and family around the world. I love that daffodils return even after those who planted them are gone. I love that the daffodils my mother tended are still signaling spring at my family home in Ohio, even though she's no longer there to enjoy them.

Today was a perfectly beautiful spring day. I spent most of it working - have spent most of the past several weeks working more than I like to - but with the longer evening light we managed to fit in an hour of front yard playtime after work. In recent weeks I have had so little time for Dora - because of work, because of other new projects, because of sheer exhaustion from all of my responsibilities. That little hour of playtime in the sun was perfect.

It was perfect for building a rock sculpture on the steps.

It was perfect for gathering sticks from the yard, beginning to clean out the beds. It was perfect to admire the little spikes of green slowly emerging from the earth, the sweet purple crocus already blooming as the yard's earliest spring arrival.

It was a perfect reminder of the new beginning that spring represents, that warm days are around the corner. It was a perfect day to think of all the daffodils emerging all around us, strong and beautiful and unassuming, quietly honoring the hands that have tended them ages ago. It was a perfect day to feel the sun on our faces, looking forward and looking back all at once.

Monday, March 8, 2010

waffles with pure maple syrup

It is a scientific fact that smells can elicit powerful memories. Walk into a room where someone is wearing a familiar scent from your past, and its like walking into a time machine. Step into someone else's home with that certain undefinable sent, and you can close your eyes and pretend you're back at your grandparent's house once more. The portion of the brain that processes smell is part of the limbic system, where memories are also stored. I remember this being referred to in college biology classes as the "smell brain". That close link within the brain means that smells often bring to us a strong, nearly Déjà vu experience of memory.

Though not based in scientific fact, I believe that tastes can have the same effect. Lemonade has never quite tasted the same to me since an unfortunate combination of vodka, lemons, and sugar rendered its taste unpleasant. A fresh snap pea, snow pea, or green bean transports me back to childhood, sneaking a bean or two off the plants in my parent's garden while they harvested produce for the farmer's market.

Pure maple syrup - something I consider a requirement at any respectable breakfast - reminds me of childhood, too. One year we had the good fortune of visiting my parent's friends Janet and Bob in northern Ohio at sugaring time, when we got to see first-hand the production of maple syrup. Janet is a childhood friend of my mother's, and at the time she and her husband lived in a big, beautiful house in Burton, Ohio. I was completely fascinated by Janet and Bob - they had a big family, with many fostered and adopted children. They were skydivers. They had built their own pool. I think during that visit that my mom and Janet hadn't seen each other in years. They were surprised to discover they had the same bedspread and were feeding their families on the same colorful Fiestaware dishes. (Years later, visiting Janet and Bob at their new home in Georgia, I was awed by Janet's impressive and beautiful Fiestaware collection).

We all piled into the fiery sugarshack to watch as the freshly gathered maple sap was boiled down to syrup. It was a slow process, requiring great patience which I surely did not have at the time. I remember a lot of stirring, and steaming, and waiting. I must have had maple syrup before, but the next morning, after having seen the process firsthand, the syrup tasted sweeter than ever over Janet's french toast. I distinctly remember that special breakfast - where I sat, the tall ladderback chairs, the shape of the kitchen, the bright dishes all over the table. To this day, making a big, special breakfast for out-of-town guests is one of my favorite acts of hospitality.

Most recently, Brian's brother Mark and his wife Jenn came to visit, so I made waffles with fresh fruit and scrambled eggs before we took a drive out to Highlands last Sunday morning. This waffle recipe is an adaptation of several different recipes, with beaten egg whites to add volume and texture, pure vanilla extract for its perfect mellow sweetness, and real maple syrup for everything it represents - trees, nature, purity, warmth, and memory.

Waffles for the Out-of-Town Guests

2 cups whole milk
2 Tablespoons white vinegar
2 cups all purpose flour
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla
powdered sugar and pure maple syrup, for serving

Preheat oven to 200, and place a cookie sheet topped with a wire rack in the oven. Combine milk and vinegar, stir, and let stand for 5 minutes. In a medium bowl, sift together dry ingredients. Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. In a large bowl, whisk the milk, egg yolks, butter, and vanilla until combined. Gently add the flour mixture to the milk mixture, stirring just until combined. Fold in one half of the egg whites using a rubber spatula, then fold in the remaining egg whites just until combined. Pour batter onto hot waffle iron. When done, transfer to wire rack in oven to keep warm. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve with fresh fruit and pure maple syrup.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

fine and better

Tonight, I didn't have the energy for anything more exciting than pasta with red sauce, dressed up with a splash of red wine like my mother used to do. I suppose my lack of energy might have had something to do with the fact that Dora had to have not one, but two time-outs before leaving school today. I've just returned from a business trip, having spent the last several nights away from home, away from Brian, the pets, the house, and Dora. I should've slept wonderfully but for some reason I tossed and turned away from home, dreaming of work, waking up thinking about my family, sleet lashing the windows on the 15th floor. After days away, I want to come home to peace and simplicity and a obedient little girl who I can play with and enjoy, but who goes to bed when she's supposed to. Instead, I have two time-outs before even leaving daycare, spilled milk in the kitchen, and a toddler now crying in the hallway about bedtime instead of peacefully slumbering at 8:30 like her little colleagues probably are.

Dora is, quite honestly, a delightful and easy child most of the time. I think we've gotten off really easy for the most part. She has always slept well and eaten well and been fun and happy, usually. She doesn't try my patience very often, in truth, but unfortunately when she does I seem to have very little patience to give. Tonight I found myself thinking of the saying, "you can't be all things to all people". Indeed. In fact, I can barely be some things to a few people, and not even everything to the people closest to me. By bedtime, I am completely spent - I have nothing left to give. And when bedtime drags on for hours, I eventually just have to close the door and walk out, the result of which is a tear-streaked face peeking out at me from the hallway.

In an earlier bedtime attempt, I remembered something my mom used to do at bedtime. My dad would read to us - I remember lots of Richard Scarry, and Maurice Sendak, and Dr. Seuss. After stories, I'd climb under the covers and wait for my mom to come check on me. I'd lay with my back to the door, so I couldn't see her come in, and she'd sneak in and sit behind me on the bed. Then, she'd run her hand across my back, down my arms, over my legs, making imaginary check marks all over me with her finger. I can remember just what it felt like - the weight of her sitting down on the bed behind me, the way the mattress would pitch a bit towards her, the feeling of her finger floating above me. I used to absolutely love this - it would relax me, and help me fall asleep.

As I laid next to Dora tonight, rubbing her back and waiting for her breathing to slow with sleep, this memory of my own mother and her bedtime ritual flooded back to me. Tears sprung to my eyes, and my feelings of longing for her rushed back once more. Grief is a funny thing in that way, sneaking up and springing on you from some dark corner, where you didn't even know it was hiding.

It's at my lowest moments when I miss my mom the most. That is not to say that I don't miss her in the good moments, too, because I do. I think of my mom when I see the first crocus of spring, wishing I could share it with her. I wish she could see the crepe myrtle in my front yard, see my little sweet house and my little sweet life, see my latest creative endeavor, see my little baby girl. I miss her then in a wistful way, often with a smile and a tear, thinking of how she would love this or that. But when I am worried, or stressed out, or fighting with my husband, or unable to calmly parent my daughter, or facing a hard decision - I think of my mom, and her sense of humor, and her advice, and I feel like my heart could break with the pain of her loss. I just want to lay down in bed, with my back to the door, and feel her sit behind me and put her little checkmarks all over me, making sure I'm fine, making it better.

Dora is in bed finally - one last try that worked. I laid her down in bed, covered her up, kissed her forehead and told her I love her. I laid my head down next to hers on the pillow, rubbed her back, listened to her sucking her fingers as her breathing eased. I ran my hand across her arm, making imaginary checkmarks with my finger against her soft cotton pajamas. What else can I do? My mom is not here to make me feel fine and better anymore. I've got to do it for myself, by being that for Dora - by sitting on her bed, and rubbing her back, and giving her a childhood memory that might comfort her in years to come. I've got to do it for myself by remembering my mom - remembering how she loved me, how she comforted me - and holding the memory of that love in my heart to keep me warm, to give me strength, to make me feel fine and better.