Really, all I can do is pretend that I'm somewhere far more exotic than the Midwest, and in keeping with my New Year's resolution of trying more new recipes, I decided to accomplish this act of mental escapism through food. For inspiration, I looked to a cookbook that's been gracing my bookshelf since I was in college and found it on the bargain table at a bookstore -- The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen. At the time that I got it, I poured through the pages, fresh off a trip to Spain and enamored with the food I'd eaten there, and dutifully dog-eared over a dozen recipes to try. However, I only made one of them (the variation on pastilla that I was considering making for Pi Day), before discovering that the techniques in the book were a bit beyond my skill set at the time, and that the ingredients called for in many of the recipes were more difficult to locate than I was willing to deal with.
Now that I'm older, wiser, more skilled, and more tenacious, I found myself ready to revisit The New Spanish Table. Going back and looking though the recipes I marked five years ago was an interesting exercise in how much my tastes have changed since then, and I found several more exciting dishes worth trying when I went through it with fresh eyes. However, the one I settled upon for this weekend was one that I had marked ages ago for a soup that I had never tried at the time, caldo gallego (soup in the style of Galicia, a region in the northwest corner of Spain), but which I thought had promise because it featured chorizo, and my love affair with encased meats goes way back. Recently, Justin and I tried caldo gallego for the first time when it was a special at one of my favorite local sandwich shops, Cafecito, and I thought it would be nice to recreate it at home.
The recipe was definitely more complicated than I usually bother with for soup -- it called for making homemade stock (I always use chicken stock from a box), and soaking dried beans overnight (I always use canned beans for the convenience factor, though every source I've ever read says they pale in comparison to dried beans). Still, I had a quiet weekend on the agenda and hadn't done any serious cooking in weeks aside from baking, so I decided to persevere.
I started the stock Thursday night, and ended up substituting ox tail for the veal shank called for in the recipe, since I couldn't find it at my grocery store but wanted a cut with lots of bones for their flavor and gelatin content. I'd never made stock before, but the aroma wafting from the pot of bones, ham hocks, bacon, and vegetables was so heavenly I felt compelled to mention it on Facebook. My chef friend, Darrell, saw my post, and intervened with some interesting tips that weren't included in the original recipe. Since I'd never tried stock-making without his advice, I have no way of knowing what impact it had on the finished project, but it mostly consisted of chilling the stock in an ice bath after it was done simmering to cool it as quickly as possible, and leaving the fat on top of the stock until I was ready to cook the finished soup. Both of these things are supposed to protect and enhance the flavor of the finished stock.
Thankfully, making the stock was the most labor-intensive part of the recipe. The next day, I dumped the beans I'd sorted the night before into a pot of water when I got home from seeing Grease, and today, I threw the rest of the ingredients in the pot at their appointed times and I was done.
Since Justin had been present when I first tried caldo gallego, it seemed only natural to share my first homemade batch with him. Even if it was a bit heavy for a finally-starting-to-get-warm spring day, we both really enjoyed this hearty soup with its rich broth, filling beans and potatoes, and spicy bits of smoky chorizo. Since it's a dish that's really better suited to the depths of winter, it will be a while before I make it again, but I'd definitely strongly consider it. I wouldn't say that it transported me out of the Midwest, but as a project, it did help distract me from my festering wanderlust.
Plus, it helped me overcome some of my trepidation surrounding homemade stock. There is something kind of magical (albeit kind of icky) about soup that is so full of delicious meat gelatin that it turns into a slice-able jello when it's cold. I'm not ready to eschew stock from a box just yet, since it's so convenient, but I'd certainly be willing to go the extra mile for special occasions.
adapted from The New Spanish Table
1 lb. smoked ham hocks
1 lb. ox tails
6-7 oz. bacon (slab bacon if you can find it)
2 small onions
2 carrots, peeled
1 1/2 c. dried white beans, soaked overnight in cold water
8 oz. Spanish-style chorizo
3 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 c. shredded spinach
1. Place the ham hocks, oxtails, bacon, onions, and carrots in a large soup pot and add 3 quarts (12 cups) of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, skimming. Reduce heat to low and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pot and simmer until the oxtails are tender, 2-3 hours.
2. Remove the onions and carrots from the broth and discard them. Remove the ham hocks, oxtails and bacon. Fill the sink with ice cubes and water, and place the pot of stock in the ice bath to cool, then put in the fridge overnight. When cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones of the ham hocks and oxtails, and tear into bite-size pieces. Chop the bacon and set it aside with the ham and beef. If you prefer not to use the bacon, simply discard it.
3. The next day, remove the solidified fat from the broth. Add the beans and bring to a boil, skimming. Cover the pot and simmer the soup until the beans are almost tender, about 1 1/4 hours.
4. Add the chorizo and potatoes and cook until the potatoes are almost tender, about 20 minutes. Add the spinach and simmer for 15 minutes more. Add the reserved ham, beef, and bacon, if using, and cook until just heated through. If you want the soup to be a little thicker, spoon out a ladleful of beans and potatoes, mash them, and return them to the pot. Using a slotted spoon, remove the chorizo from the soup, slice it, and return it to the pot. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary before serving.
I say the "original version" because Grease was originally produced in Chicago in 1971, but the show was significantly tamed down when it later moved to Broadway. The original played on Chicago's ethnic and geographic stereotypes, and employed much grittier levels of sex and violence. The local character of the show, and much of its more controversial content was expunged to make the production more palatable to a mainstream audience, and the show's original incarnation was largely forgotten. The only reason I knew it existed was because of the vast quantities of Wikipedia articles I consume on a regular basis.
And, the only reason I knew about this new production of the original Grease was because I managed to get on the American Theater Company's mailing list when I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch there two years ago, and they've been relentlessly mailing me and trying to get me to become a season subscriber ever since. Frankly, I found their constant appeals to be rather irritating, but for once I was actually intrigued when I spotted Grease on the roster for their current season, and I promptly added it to my 2011 to-d0 list.
Being as how I've been a bit of a bad friend lately, neglecting my girlfriends to spend time with Justin, I decided it was time to atone for matters and treat Lisa to a special girls' night. I thought Grease, even in a different form, would be a perfect fit for us, because one of my earliest memories of her (most of middle-school is an emotionally-traumatizing blur to me now) involves her performance in the school show choir's revue of the musical. Lucky for me, she was amenable to the idea of a night out on the town, so I ordered some tickets and we were on our way.
True to its billing, the show was much raunchier, though only slightly more violent than its better-known version. A few of the songs made it through mostly intact from the original, including "Greased Lightning," "Freddy My Love," "Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee," "We Go Together," "Born to Hand Jive," "Beauty School Dropout," and "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." However, many of the songs underwent lyrical changes to clean them up, such as the omission of Rizzo from "Greased Lightning," in which she sings to Kenickie, "You really are a clown, if you think I'm going down in Greased Lightning." Among the songs stricken altogether is the innuendo-laden "Kiss It," a song later replaced by "You're The One That I Want," in which a post-makeover Sandy demands that Danny "kiss it, where I'm tender," in order to make amends for her broken heart. The original Grease was definitely a different show, albeit with recognizable characters and a similar story arc.
While it was an interesting intellectual exercise to see how the show was changed for mainstream audiences, I wouldn't go so far as to call it an stellar evening of theater. It suffered from the inverse problem of White Noise, which had a stellar cast but little memorable songs or palatable content; the original Grease had good jokes and pleasing music, but the cast featured some of the worst singing I've heard in professional theater. It was perhaps fitting that the actors were portraying high school students, because I couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching a high-school caliber performance of Grease in terms of vocal talent, only I had paid $45 per ticket for the privilege. The acting was much better than one might see out of ones drama department peers in the 11th grade, but the singing was right on par.
The poor vocals aside, the production was well-staged, and made good use of the strangely-shaped theater space. The stage at the American Theater Company is somewhat of a thrust stage, though it is a right triangle rather than semicircular. The audience is seated along the two shorter sides of the triangle, which creates some odd viewing angles, but I felt that the director did a good job of positioning the actors so that they played to the audience, no matter where they were seated.
I also enjoyed the set design, which featured antique cars and vintage signs to capture the era of the 1950s. My only complaint was that the production seemed to employ special effects for their own sake, rather than enhancing the storyline. In one scene, Patty Simcox inexplicably goes to the bathroom mid-song, seeming only so that they can show off the fact that the sink in bathroom set has working plumbing. At the end of the first act, it rains during an outdoor scene, leaving the stagehands to mop up the mess during intermission with towels, but adding little to the show other than impressing the audience that they were able to make it rain indoors. In my mind, they could have spent less on special effects, and more on finding better singers to fill the available roles. People go to musicals for the music first, production values second.
I still think the original Grease is worth seeing if you're a theater buff, or a lifelong Chicagoan who would appreciate the references made in the show. Indeed, it seemed like the audience was brimming over with people who were old enough to remember what Chicago was like in the 1950s (the woman sitting behind us, for instance, cattily commented during intermission that nobody she knew would have been caught dead with their hair so relatively un-teased in her day). If you can look beyond the shoddy singing, it's an interesting and enjoyable show.
This time around, some simple cookies perfumed with Earl Grey tea and orange zest captured my fancy. Unsurprisingly, I spotted them while perusing Martha Stewart's website, though the recipe has been lurking in my baking queue for years, but it kept getting passed over in favor of more impressive, elaborate creations. Given that two of the seven cookies I baked for last year's Cookie Bonanza were slice-and-bake icebox cookies, the ease and convenience of the genre is starting to grow on me enough that I thought it would be wise to add a few more recipes to my repertoire.
Predictably, the dough for these cookies came together quickly; the most tedious part of the entire process came from cutting open the pile of tea bags and emptying their contents. After the spate of grocery store trips associated with my blogiversary carrot cake, it was somewhat of a relief to be able to bake something entirely from ingredients I had on hand. The dough was even easy to work with, and rolled out into an evenly-sized log with ease. It was a decided contrast to assembling a layer cake, and a pleasant reminder of why I've always preferred baking cookies over cakes, even if cakes are more of a challenge to my skill set.
Once baked, the cookies turned out pleasant enough, but didn't blow me away. They were light and delicately crisp, smelling gently of bergamot (the citrus fruit that gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive flavor) and orange, but I found them a bit on the salty side (I adjusted the recipe below to reflect this). Visually, I liked the contrast of the dark tea leaves with the pale dough, and thought that the cookies would be at home on a tiered stand alongside some dainty crust-less sandwiches at a tea party. I think these Earl Grey biscuits, as the British would call them, would be a lovely addition to a ladies' brunch or wedding shower menu, but I would look elsewhere if you've got a serious cookie craving.
Earl Grey Tea Cookies
adapted from Martha Stewart
2 c. all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 tablespoons finely-ground Earl Grey tea leaves, from about 6 tea bags
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 c. powdered sugar
zest of one orange
1. Whisk together flour, tea, and salt in a small bowl and set aside.
2. Put butter, sugar, and orange zest in bowl of a stand mixer and mix on medium speed until fluffy and pale, about three minutes. Reduce speed to low and mix in flour until just incorporated.
3. Divide dough in half. shape into 1 1/4 inch logs and wrap tightly in wax paper, using a ruler to force out air bubbles. Refrigerate overnight or freeze for one hour.
4. Preheat oven to 350. Cut the logs of dough into 1/4 inch slices and place one inch apart on parchment-lined baking sheets.
5. Bake until edges turn golden brown, 13-15 minutes. Cool on wire racks before serving.
The main "narrative" of the film is about the construction of Onkalo, a four-kilometer deep tunnel the size of a city, which will be needed to store spent nuclear fuel for the aforementioned hundred millennia time period. In a film that explores in great detail how long the lifespan of our waste is in comparison to our own, even the time from the beginning of Onkalo's construction to its finally being sealed - an astounding 125 years - seems insignificant next to the amount of time the structure is expected to exist and to serve the purpose for which is designed. It might inspire one to feel pride for living in a time and society where such things are possible, but when cast in the harsh light of that gargantuan expanse of time, I began to wonder how much of that accomplishment is real and how much of it is wishful thinking.
If there's one thing I learned from the recent accidents at the Fukushima Dai-ichi facility, it's that even careful planning can prove disastrously ineffective when faced with the unforeseen -- the plant was designed to withstand earthquakes, but not one of the magnitude of the March 2011 quake. Similarly, it's not out of the realm of possibility that even a well-designed and cared-for storage repository might encounter unforeseen geologic conditions with tragic results.
However, the film is very even-handed about this approach to the problem of what to do with nuclear waste, taking care not to outright make it seem like a bad idea. True, it never makes it seem like a fantastic solution to the problem either, but rather has the effect of framing it as a "damned if you do/damned if you don't" scenario and emphasizing that inaction is simply not an option. More often than not, the interview subjects come off as humble about the task ahead of them, although a couple of them seem disturbingly not to appreciate the full weight of what the filmmaker is asking them to address. Perhaps what the director is driving at is that a better solution to nuclear waste would be to stop making it, but this is an idea that nobody he speaks with seems to take seriously, for various reasons.
For them, it seems a foregone conclusion that efforts such as Onkalo are the price of the energy we get from nuclear power and that the utility of this cost for what we do to our future is above question. In this sense, the filmmaker has discovered the heart of the real problem with storing spent nuclear fuel - the best solution is not merely to bury the nuclear fuel we have, it is to do that and stop making more of it. The tragedy, of course, is that the people who can and are building Onkalo and sites like it are not interested in going that extra step. After all, it would mean the end of their industry, and though it might be good for us in the long run, most people are understandably unwilling to give it all up to make that happen.
In a film full of chilling ideas, one that certainly ranks up there is the notion that we as a society are not merely unwilling but perhaps even unable to let go of something with so many negative consequences and ramifications for the future of life on Earth. This is probably true of more than just nuclear power, but nonetheless this particular issue forces us to confront this hard reality.
Although at some times it comes off as a little melodramatic, Madsen uses an interesting and effective rhetorical device in periodically addressing his film not to the audience watching it in 2011 (or the near future) but to those who might discover his film generations later, maybe even centuries or millennia later, if such a thing is indeed possible. Although I have to admit that it's probably more effective on a contemporary audience -- one interview subject makes the point that we don't know how language will change in the future - it's still interesting to try to view the issue from a fresh set of eyes, try to consider what someone who doesn't know what we know might think of discovering a site like Onkalo.
Would they find our words of warning meaningful and heed them, or dismiss them as hokum and laugh at our bravado as they began digging? Might they even suspect that we were trying to hide something of value and dig faster? How might they respond to what they found? These are all questions that are unknowable, but nonetheless important and even stimulating to consider, as the filmmaker asks us to think of our legacy on a human level and by doing so attempts to make the numbers more fathomable.
Into Eternity is a scary movie, in that it makes us aware how many knowledge gaps there are in a scheme that, although far from the longest construction project ever, still represents a sizeable endeavor. Although it is on some level comforting to know that something is being done to address the problem, that comfort is short-lived when you cone to realize that 1) the problem of what to do with nuclear waste is far from solved, even by a drastic and necessary site such as Onkalo, and 2) What is essentially being built into the Finnish bedrock, as important as it is, might as well be our culture's version of Pandora's box - a hidden secret just waiting to be opened by someone curious and naive to the detriment of all. It is my hope that thousands more will not be necessary.
*Not the Chicago-born actor who played Vic Vega in Reservoir Dogs, in case you were wondering.
As a student of history and American studies, the subject that always interested me the most was the Cold War, and how the Atomic Age was viewed in popular culture. I published a paper on images of the Space Race in advertising, and how nuclear science captured public imagination in the 1950s and 60s.
I was also particularly fascinated with the specter of nuclear warfare. I saw just about every film on the subject, from the satire of Dr. Strangelove to the dead-seriousness of The Day After. I read books ranging from the philosophical musings on the atomic legacy in Oh Pure and Radiant Heart to the gut-wrenching first-hand recollections of atomic bombing survivors in Hiroshima. It's probably safe to say that I've spent more time thinking about the possibility of nuclear annihilation than most people.
Hence, I've been following the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Power Plant with an interest that extends beyond the devastating humanitarian tragedy it represents. The press surrounding the catastrophe has rekindled my interest in nuclear policy, and I have been devouring news and opinion pieces at a prodigious rate. Of particular interest was the republication of a fascinating article I found on Slate about the ethics of nuclear waste disposal. It raised a number of interesting questions about how to dispose of material that has the potential to be deadly for 100,000 years, when human beings as we recognize them only go back some 50,000 years. How do you communicate with the future? It's a question that boggles the mind.
When I saw that the Siskel Film Center was screening Into Eternity, a documentary about Onkalo, a three mile deep tunnel being hewn from the Finnish bedrock as a storage site for Finland's nuclear waste, I knew I had to attend. I found the film fascinating, and was glad that I went, though Justin called it, "one of the scariest films I've ever seen." It would seem that a lot of people agreed with his assessment, and stayed away from the theater in the first place, as it was one of the most poorly-attended screenings I've caught there in ages. Clearly, philosophical discussion about how to protect the future from the damage we've wrought in our time isn't a palatable topic for most people.
For me, the documentary hearkened back to the conceit of one of my favorite college courses on Cold War culture in literature: how do you express the inexpressible? The danger of radioactive waste exists on a scale that humans cannot begin to wrap their minds around. There is literally not a single assumption that can be made about how people in the future will interpret the site, or how they will interact with it.
Consider, for a moment, that the earliest forms of human writing came into existence only 5,000 years ago, but today, only highly-trained scholars can read such texts. We have no way of knowing how people will communicate so far into the future in order to be able to warn them of the danger that lurks beneath the ground. And who is to say they would listen to us even if we could? The ancient Egyptians covered their tombs with warnings of the dire fates that befall any who disturbed them, but curious and greedy individuals of later generations dug them up anyway.
Furthermore, how do we know that radiation will still be dangerous so far into the future. An optimistic view might posit that future civilizations might find a way to neutralize radioactive materials, or even harness them for some sort of good that we cannot even conceive of today. As little as a couple hundred years ago, the idea of splitting an atom to harness its energy would have been an inconceivable concept. If society continues down a path of technological and scientific advancement, we have no way of predicting what kind of advances will be possible.
The film, though somewhat heavy-handed at times (though, in all honesty, what topic could be more deserving of such high drama?), does a masterful job of raising these questions and exploring a range of possible answers from a series of experts. There are no definitive answers, and Into Eternity doesn't try to give us any. Instead, it does its best to inform, explore, and raise the audience's consciousness of the issues at stake. It succeeds in making what could be a very dry subject entertaining (though, as Justin said, terrifying), and although it doesn't necessarily motivate the audience to action (since the average person has no bearing on nuclear energy policy), it does make them more educated citizens of the world.
Moreover, Into Eternity is a timely yet timeless tale. In all likelihood, it's probably not possible for you to catch it in theaters yourself and it's not currently available on Netflix, but I highly encourage you to at least read the Slate article. It's an intriguing read, and you might just learn something...
For years, we would commemorate Easter by dressing up in our finest spring apparel, not for Easter mass, but to drive to a hotel and stuff our faces with a gluttonous array of carved meats, pastries, and breakfast foods. The main reason why we stopped going was because it became increasingly difficult to locate such brunches, and the ones we found were either outrageously priced or lackluster in quality. Still, I suspect brunch was always Dad's favorite part of the holiday, because it was usually his idea to find a place to make reservations every year, and he would often lament the fact that we had stopped going. In light of that, I decided to take it upon myself to find a brunch spot for this year.
The options, however, were once again uniformly expensive, and my parents didn't relish the idea of trekking downtown to an upscale hotel for the privilege of spending an exorbitant sum. So Mom suggested checking out the Easter brunch at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, minutes from my parents' house, so that I could journey to the suburbs instead and we could employ our membership discount.
I'm in three-inch heels, and he's still towering over me...
More importantly, however, the food was surprisingly good for catered fare. The bacon was cooked to perfection, neither soggy nor burnt to a crisp, and the sausages were plump and juicy. The breakfast options were sufficiently tasty, but the standout items were to be found at the carving station, where a manchego and herb potato gratin stole the show, alongside a well-spiced herb-crusted leg of lamb with blackberry mint chutney. I didn't make it to the custom omelet station, but I don't consider that a huge loss. Honestly, it was one of the better brunches I've had in a long, long time.
The Botanic Gardens also offer a Mother's Day brunch, and we are now seriously considering it for our own celebration. If you're in the market for a holiday brunch venue in the suburbs, the Botanic Garden certainly gets my stamp of approval.
The past year has been full of big and wonderful changes in my life. I lost twenty pounds, met a wonderful guy, and fell madly in love. If the point of blogging in the first place was to force myself out of the apartment and into life in the great urban metropolis, the addition of an indulgent partner to my life has certainly helped: in the past year I saw fourteen movies, attended six theatrical productions, and went to five museum exhibits. Not bad if I do say so myself!
However, despite everything I've been up to in the second year of "The State I Am In," one thing has remained the same -- the most popular tag is still food. Apparently, 28% of my posts are about the subject, so in that spirit, I've decided to make a tradition of celebrating my blogiversary with a cake. Initially, I had planned to make Grandma Betsy's red velvet cake, due to clamoring from certain friends of mine who fondly remember the one my mom baked for my birthday back in 2008. The family recipe does put all those red velvet cupcakes from trendy bakeries to shame, but I've always been intimidated by the "seven-minute icing" with which our version is topped. Despite my recent realization that my baking skills can handle bigger challenges, I was still unsure.
Then, not unlike last year, I found myself swayed by a new recipe, this time for carrot cake. Since my blogiversary falls on Easter this year (more on that later), a carrot cake seemed somehow more appropriate, given that rabbits eat carrots, and bunnies are linked with Easter for some inexplicable reason.* Knowing that my dad is a big fan of carrot cake and that I was going to be home for Easter weekend, it also seemed like a natural time to try my hand at baking one for the first time.
However, it quickly became apparent that this was the cake that did not want to be baked. When I started gathering the ingredients, I quickly realized that my initial grocery store run had been insufficient, and I had used all my eggs for making Easter eggs last weekend with Justin. Off went my pajamas (requisite baking attire in my household), on went my shoes, and out the door to the grocery store I went. Then, once I was back, I was well into the recipe and was about to combine the wet ingredients when I discovered that my visual inspection of my bottle of vegetable oil had overestimated its contents and I was short by 1/4 cup. Thankfully, by that point, Dad had come to stay for the evening, so he was able to give me a much-appreciated ride back to the store for the missing oil.
Going into the oven, however, did not put an end to the drama, as the cake came out looking slightly over-baked around the edges, but then fell in the middle. Since the edges were too done, I doubt that under-baking was the cause of my fallen cake; I think too much moisture from the extremely fresh carrots I used was the culprit. Not feeling like grating another three cups of carrots to try again, I decided to frost the fallen cakes anyway, but despite my greatest efforts to make sure the sides of the cake were straight, by the time I was finished the now very tall cake had a decidedly Pisa-like lean to one side.
I pronounced myself finished with the frustrations this dessert had brought into my life, but it wasn't through with me yet -- when I went to pull out the pieces of wax paper I'd lain down on the cake plate to keep the frosting off of it, it pulled huge chunks of the cake with it. I mashed them back into place and tried to ice over the flaws, but I couldn't get the sides of the cake as smooth and lovely (if still crooked) as they were before. I piped some decorative dollops of frosting on the cake, which helped some, but it was nowhere close to my vision of carrot cake perfection. Clearly, the cake gods had frowned upon me in this endeavor.
I went to bed seething with cake-related rage, but when I tasted it the next day, I realized that this blogiversary carrot cake had actually been illustrative of my blogging experience, and life in general. I set out with the best of intentions, and persevered when things didn't go the way I anticipated, even when I wanted to give up. It didn't turn out as perfectly as I would have liked, nor did it live up to my expectations of what it would look like, but even with all of its flaws, it still turned out pretty great. You see, after all those small disasters, the cake was still delicious, especially the frosting, and part of the reason why I've never been particularly fond of carrot cake is because I hate cream cheese frosting. The cake, like life, had surprised me and challenged me to look at things in a new way.
Blogging may not always be fun, easy, or convenient, but I'm proud that I've maintained my commitment to it for the past two years of my life, and I feel like it's greatly improved the quality of my life as well. Here's to another 365 days of adventures, love, and random musings!
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
2 c. all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 c. sugar
1 1/4 c. vegetable oil
4 large eggs
3 c. finely grated, peeled carrots
1 c. chopped pecans (optional)
Preheat oven to 350.
Spray two 8- or 9-inch cake pans with Pam with Flour.
Whisk flour, baking soda, salt, and spices in a medium bowl until combined. Whisk oil and sugar in a large bowl until well blended. Whisk in eggs one at a time. Add flour mixture and stir until blended. Stir in carrots and nuts, if using. Divide the batter evenly between the two pans.
Bake 40 minutes, rotating halfway through the baking process, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool cakes in their pans on a cooling rack 15 minutes, then remove from the pans to cool completely.
Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
2 8 oz. packages cream cheese, softened
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
2 c. confectioner's sugar
1/4 c. pure maple syrup
In a stand mixer, beat all ingredients on medium until fluffy. Chill the frosting for 10-20 minutes until it has set up enough to spread smoothly.
*Wikipedia says that rabbits are a symbol of fertility, and are therefore linked with spring. Since Easter falls in the spring, the two are therefore associated. That doesn't make sense to me though; doesn't Easter celebrate the resurrection of Jesus? He rose from the dead, but wasn't reborn, so I don't understand the connection to birth and fertility. Then again, I'm probably the wrong person to ask, given that I'm not at all religious.
The Illusionist tells the tale of an aging magician whose work is increasingly less relevant in a culture captivated by the advent of rock music and more flashy forms of entertainment. He moves through Europe trying to scrape together a living through a series of increasingly demeaning performance opportunities, before he finds success for a time in a remote Scottish village where his talents are still considered novel. There, he meets a young girl who believes he has real supernatural powers, and she runs away from home to follow him into what she believes will be a charmed, more exotic existence. Tatischeff, the magician, takes her under his wing as he would a daughter, and lavishes her with expensive gifts, secretly working a series of degrading odd jobs to support the girl in her new lifestyle.
I won't tell you how it ends, but I was warned in advance by Katherine, who saw the movie when it was in theaters the first time around, that I should prepare myself to be depressed. She was not mistaken. Unlike The Triplets of Belleville, which was a zany, exuberant romp, The Illusionist has the same heart-wrenching effect as reading your way through The Giving Tree (a children's book surpassed in its power to sadden only by I Love You Forever.) Tatischeff gives until he has nothing left to give, and the movie takes our dreams (as well as the girl's) and stomps all over them. The ending isn't totally without hope, but it is also profoundly sad.
I don't mind a bit of emotional devastation from time to time, but most people don't, so I'm not sure I can recommend this movie. Stylistically and aesthetically, it is very much in keeping with The Triplets of Belleville, so if you would like to appreciate some gorgeous, hand-drawn animation (itself a dying art in this day and age) with European flair, I think I'd recommend renting a copy of that instead.
I used to love its unique combination of sweet, salty, and tangy flavors as a child, but the older I got, the more I found myself mortified by its presence in my lunch. My friends would make fun of me for the way it smelled and what they deemed the "gross" combination of ingredients. Eventually, I begged her to stop sending it in my lunch. As far as I can remember, she stopped making it all together as long as I was still living under her roof.
Now that I'm older and less prone to the whims of peer pressure, I've found myself thinking back fondly to the memories of that childhood egg and olive salad, particularly the multicolored batches that resulted from freshly-dyed Easter eggs. Hence, after spending all that time on Saturday decorating eggs, their beauty was not long for this world. Even without a recipe, and never having made it before, the egg and olive salad was just as I remembered it, and just as delicious. Funny thing, nostalgia...
And why was I thinking about Egghead and egg-related humor today? Simple -- with Easter right around the corner, and the notoriously capricious Chicago weather keeping us indoors and away from our original weekend plan of visiting Starved Rock State Park, Justin and I decided to decorate Easter eggs. Nothing beats a craft project on a rainy day, especially one that is ultimately edible. It'd probably been at least a decade and a half since the last time I dyed Easter eggs with my mom, but it was always a favorite part of the holiday season. We might not be particularly religious in our household, but we still had fun observing the secular traditions associated with otherwise religious holidays.
If you think about it, dyeing eggs is a pretty wacky tradition as it is practiced in America. At least in Eastern Europe, the favorite colors for Easter eggs are red (a symbol of the blood and suffering of Christ), black (a symbol of His death), and green (a symbol of rebirth and His resurrection). Here, however, we dye them in vibrant pastels. It seems to have about as much to do with the resurrection as decorating a Christmas tree does with the birth of Jesus, but that's how it goes I guess. Who am I to argue with such time-honored traditions?
For decorating inspiration, I looked to my muse and favorite lifestyle icon, Martha Stewart. Yes, I know she's kind of evil and probably a bitch in real life, but she and her staff have clever craft ideas, reliable recipes, and know how to throw a party. I think I could do worse for an aspirational figure. Since I wanted to hard-boil and consume my eggs later, I was restricted to the decorating methods that utilized food dye (as opposed to the legions of ideas that involved glitter, decoupage, and paint), but I settled on two interesting techniques that involved wrapping eggs in rubber bands to create stripes of color, and dripping rubber cement on to eggs to generate a splatter-painted effect.
The rubber cement technique was by far my favorite; I really liked the Jackson Pollack vibe of the ones we dyed that way. They took more effort than the other eggs, as they had to be held until the rubber cement dried before they could go into the dye bath, but I think they were well worth the extra work. The rubber bands were my next favorite, with a certain minimalist charm, but drawing on the eggs using the crayon included in the $2 package of Paas Easter Egg Dye from Walgreens was definitely a bust. Spend a little money on some extra supplies, and your eggs will be much more interesting.
Decorating Easter eggs might have felt like a bit of a let-down in comparison to the day trip Justin and I had planned for today, but sometimes you have to bend to the whims of Mother Nature. It was still fun to express our creativity and produce something together, and hopefully we'll have provided a bit of inspiration for your own Easter celebration...
Since then, a new presence has cropped up on the Chicago gourmet sausage scene that has been receiving its own fair amount of hype. I've seen Franks 'n Dawgs featured on Food Network, the Cooking Channel, and the Travel Channel for its "haute dogs," and last night Justin and I decided to have a pre-theater dinner there since it was a mere couple blocks from the Royal George Theater where we saw White Noise.
Franks 'n Dawgs had several things going for it to recommend it over Hot Doug's: although there has been plenty of press about it, my expectations were lower, there was no line when we arrived, and once we had placed our order, there was plenty of available seating -- we didn't have to stalk people who looked like they were about to finish their food and shoot them dagger eyes til they felt guilty enough to hustle through their meal and vacate their seats so we could sit down. The menu also featured a bit more variety than Hot Doug's, as it boasts more options for side dishes, including a Brussels sprout salad and truffle waffle fries (worth returning for entirely on their own) in addition to their regular fries, cheese fries, and chili cheese fries. I also liked the buns better at Franks 'n Dawgs, which are supplied by a local bakery and toasted on each side, as opposed to the standard issue hot dog buns served at Hot Doug's.
When it came to the actual dogs though, I think Hot Doug's still dominates in terms of flavor. I ordered the "Charitable Dog" of the month, from which a dollar of the proceeds go to benefit a local charity. "Da Ringer," as it was called, featured a Thuringer-style sausage, topped with shallot marmalade, pieces of bacon, and shoestring potatoes. The flavor of the meat was not particularly interesting and I found its natural casing to be more tough and chewy than snappy. Ditto for the bacon topping, which was similarly chewy instead of crisp. It was good, but it wasn't transcendent.
Justin, who loves New Orleans cuisine, had the "N'awlins Dog," which consisted of an andouille sausage, topped with fried shrimp, fried okra, and spicy ketchup. He seemed to enjoy it, though the andouille was a bit on the spicy side for me, and I don't normally shy away from hot food.
Even though I ultimately still think Hot Doug's has the better hot dog, I'll definitely be going back to Franks 'n Dawgs. For one thing, it's much easier to get to -- I think you could even walk there from the North and Clybourn Red Line station on a nice day -- and the thinner crowds make for a much more diner-friendly experience. I was overwhelmed when ordering my meal, but only because there were so many delicious-looking options that it was hard to choose. I'm already thinking about when I can go back to try that Brussels sprouts salad and the celebrity chef-designed "Chicken ala Naha," a house-made chicken sausage topped with maple pork belly, apple cider date chutney, tomato crème fraiche, and scallions. Yum!
If you're traveling through Chicago and want to get in on the gourmet encased meat trend, I'd seriously consider skipping the more famous Hot Doug's in favor of the more accessible Franks 'n Dawgs. It might not be quite the same, but it's still very good, without all the hassle.
As a brief preface to this post, let me just acknowledge that I am fully aware of how lucky I am to have a boyfriend who probably couldn't name any of the college teams that were in the Final Four this year (correct me if I'm wrong, babe), and who seems endlessly willing to tromp around the city with me attending cultural happenings instead of staying home to watch sports. I seriously hit the jackpot with him.
I am also lucky to have a diverse and creative group of friends who work in a variety of fields. Their unique perspectives enrich my life on a regular basis, but today, I was able to tap my network in a more tangible way. You see, my old high school pal, Tamar, does backstage work at a variety of theaters around the city, and is currently working on White Noise, a new musical that is being tested in Chicago before heading to Broadway. She posted a couple weeks ago on Facebook that the theater was "papering the house" or giving away free tickets in order to fill seats during the first few weeks of the run, and to get in touch with her if we were interested in comped tickets. Naturally, I took her up on her offer and scored a pair of free tickets to the show tonight.
White Noise tells the story of a white supremacist rock trio who are discovered by a big-time music producer who wants to take their act to the mainstream, albeit with a subtler, more coded message. The show underscores the disturbing power of superficial packaging and marketing in America, and how audiences are willing to accept many products of popular culture uncritically. It seemed like an interesting premise, and with the credibility added by producer Whoopi Goldberg, I thought the show seemed worth checking out, especially for free. Oh, and I might have been a wee bit motivated by the fact that this production stars Mackenzie Mauzy, who used to be on The Bold and the Beautiful, back when I was in college and had more time for soap opera watching...
The show was, predictably, somewhat hard to watch given the subject matter, and very heavy-handed, though that is probably to be expected considering the premise of the show is that Americans don't look for messages in their entertainment. Hence, the show feels compelled to hit you over the head with one. There was not a sympathetic character in the bunch -- everyone eventually sells out or compromises their beliefs in some way.
I found myself wanting to like some of the characters; Jake, the talented young producer who works for Max initially refuses to work with White Noise but ends up giving into the lure of money; Eden, the least racist of the White Noise members ultimately values fame and an escape from her impoverished upbringing more than her ideals; and Dion and Tyler, the wholesome African-American Ivy League grads who want to sing songs that are full of positive messages ultimately allow Max to market them as Blood Brothers, a gangsta rap act whose biggest hit is "Nigga Gonna Shoot The Whiteboy." As for the rest of the characters, there is nary a redeeming quality to their one-sided terribleness.
The acting with which they are portrayed is similarly over-the-top (not surprising in Mauzy's case at least, given her soap opera work), substituting petulance and attitude for intensity of emotion. Nobody seems to have much depth of motivation, beyond the obvious. Yet, despite the lacking quality of the performances from an acting perspective, the singing was actually quite impressive. Musically, the ensemble was very talented, and every voice seemed well-cast for its role. However, I can’t say there was really a memorable song from the entire production. Justin made a comment that he didn’t foresee any of the songs from White Noise making any future “Best of Broadway” compilations, and I agree with him. The songs were catchy and at times disarming (an earnest ditty from the band’s audition with Max entitled “Welcome to Auschwitz” comes to mind), but none of them really stood out to me.
My only complaint was with the sound design for the show – in order to channel a rock concert atmosphere, the entire show was very loud. Before the show, Justin and I had been joking about him falling asleep during the production, because he had to pick his sister up at the airport at 5:00 this morning, but as soon as he saw the speaker set up for the show, he knew he’d definitely be awake for the entire thing. In fact, I spent several musical numbers with my fingers in my ears trying to cut down on the noise levels because my ears were starting to hurt.
Both of us enjoyed the stage design, which echoed the scaffolding and temporary sets one might see at an arena rock show. Clever use was made of onstage cameras as well, which projected the action onto screens above the stage, again, like a rock concert. There were a bit too many strobe lights for my taste, and Justin found the overall lighting design to be too bright. This too was in keeping with the tone of the production – everything was very loud, very bright, very flashy, and very in-your-face. It was not a night of theater for the faint of heart.
Rumor has it that White Noise is bound for Broadway, but I’m not sure it’s quite ready yet. It is a challenging piece of theater, but not unlike the titular band itself, I think it could use a bit of tweaking to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience. I certainly wouldn’t have gone to see it if I hadn’t gotten free tickets, and I don’t think that kind of audience attitude will net the producers a profitable Broadway production. Technically, the show has good bones, but a few tweaks here or there to the lyrics and writing, and a few notes to the performers on their acting, and the producers might really have something.
A couple months ago, whilst perusing my usual assortment of blogs, news, and editorial sites on the web, I came across an Elizabethan-era love poem that made me think of my relationship with Justin. I emailed it to myself where I could reread it from time to time, and I often think of its words when I'm spending time with him. Since I've come to associate it so closely with my feelings towards Justin, I thought I would let it speak for me today, since I've already written at length about my love for this man. Happy six-month anniversary babe!
"My True Love Hath My Heart"
by Sir Philip Sidney
My true love hath my heart and I have his,
By just exchange one for another given;
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driven.
His heart in me keeps him and me in one,
My heart in him his thoughts and senses guide;
He loves my heart, for it was once his own,
I cherish his, because in me it bides.
My true love hath my heart and I have his.
Back in the days when I used to read though, I discovered a particular fondness for the story of Jane Eyre, which I read as a preteen. I remember being so eager to read it that I checked out the large-print version from the library when the regular edition was checked out because I didn't want to wait for it to be returned. Given that the book is fairly long, the large-print version was epic in size, and I remember dragging it on a trip to Grandma Betsy's house because I was determined to find out how it ended. The story of the orphaned Jane, who endures a tragic childhood only to take a governess job at an isolated, eerie country estate and ending up falling in love with her employer, only to be beset by further tragedy captured my imagination. Jane is a strong, passionate heroine that a modern girl can relate to, and I found myself rooting for her through all the gazillion pages of the copy I read.
Given my love for the story, I've always had a fondness for movie adaptations of the novel. Although the 1944 film version with Orson Welles is very popular, I've always found it a bit too Gothic for my tastes; I prefer the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli version (though I've always been a fan of Zeffirelli's films, especially his take on Romeo and Juliet), and I also have fond memories of a television miniseries I saw based on the book, though so many have been made that I'd be hard pressed to identify which one I saw. It was natural then, that I would make time to see the latest cinematic retelling of the story, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, so I scheduled a date with Lauren, my go-to pal for seeing period dramas, to head to the theater.
While the film was largely faithful to the book, I felt that the plot was a bit too compressed and simplified, despite the two hour run time. The characters' motivations were often not entirely clear, due to the parts of the story that had been cut for time, and I was glad to have read the book before seeing the film. Fassbender's Rochester was a true Byronic hero, and was truer to his portrayal in the book because of it, although I found his performance to be somewhat overwrought at times, and his dialogue slightly preposterous. Wasikowska's portrayal of Jane was excellent, though I would have liked to see her a bit livelier and feistier. However, the self-restraint evidenced in this version of Jane was probably more accurate given the prevailing social norms of the time.
Furthermore, the film did what any period piece ought to do, which is have amazing costumes that make you long for a time when women wore beautiful gowns every day. Sure, it would have been inconvenient and hot to have on so many layers of clothes, but the clothes were so pretty! Even as a plain, impoverished governess, Jane had a wardrobe that was worthy of coveting. The cinematography was also admirable, rendering the bleak English moors as an external reflection of Jane's state of mind. Beyond the performances, the film was simply beautiful to look at.
If you enjoy period dramas, I think you owe it to yourself to catch this rendition of Jane Eyre. Round up one or more of your girlfriends (though I love this story, I wouldn't drag a heterosexual man to see it) and bond over the swoon-worthy romance and costumes. You won't regret it.