The Magic of Apple Pie, Revisited

Ohmygawdsomuchtodo!!!

Ohmygawdsomuchtodo!!!

Okay, true confessions time. Novel revisions ongoing, editing projects raining down, new book still not done, Mom still recovering from knee surgery, plus the annual comedy tarot gig with my best bud (and fellow Psychic Psister) Laura Fogelson, aka Cigna Blatz, tomorrow night in Kenosha, WI… In a word, I. Am. Overworked. (Aren’t we all, you say? Yes, we are, more’s the pity.) Anyway, that’s my excuse for this week’s blog post–quick and hopefully delicious, should any readers out there decide to try it. If you do, let me know how it turned out. I like it, and I hope you will too.

And now, without further ado… Blondie’s Honey-Ginger Apple Pie! (With a promise to return you to your regularly scheduled blathering next Friday, insanity permitting…)

Ingredients:

2 prepared roll-up pie crusts (or make your own if you want. That’s right, show me up. :))

6-8 apples, any variety (the bigger the apple, the fewer you’ll need)

3 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

2 tablespoons honey

Pinch of allspice

Thumb-sized or larger piece of fresh ginger

1 tablespoon cold butter

Directions: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Unroll one pie crust and drape it across the bottom of a pie pan (preferably deep-dish). Set pie pan aside.

Peel, core and thinly slice the apples. In a large mixing bowl, toss apple slices with flour, cinnamon, vanilla and allspice. Spoon apples into pie pan. Drizzle with honey and gently stir to coat.

Scrape off the outer skin of the ginger and dot apples with fresh ginger curls. (A vegetable peeler works great for this.) Make sure the ginger is scattered across the pie filling; you’ll probably need 10 to 15 curls. Cut butter into small pieces and dot the pie filling with them as well.

Unroll second pie crust and drape it over the filling. Crimp the edges of both pie crusts together, then press with fork tines to make a pattern. Cut four small slits in the top of the pie, as if dividing it into quarters.

Place pie on a baking sheet (to catch drips) and set it in the oven. Bake at 375 for 50 minutes, then check to see how it’s doing. If the crust is nicely golden-brown and the filling is bubbling through the slits in the top, it’s done. If it’s not quite ready, give it another 5 to 10 minutes.

Take it out of the oven and let it sit for at least 15 minutes before serving. Serve warm, with vanilla or cinnamon ice cream for an extra-special treat.

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The Magic of Apple Pie

pie picSo here I am on a chilly October Friday in Chicago, working away on revisions to my 1872-era police procedural and juggling that with my latest novel-in-progress, the stolen-baby one (yes, my mind works in these paths; over time I’ve come to embrace it). Completed a major chunk of revisions, plus I finished what should be the final chapter in the middle section of the new book. All before noon, no less. A good day for a writer, no?

No. Because, having finished (?) the messy middle of my stolen-child story, I now face the worst case of writer’s block ever. Because I have no idea how to pull off the final piece of the book. No. Idea. At. All. Dang it.

I know where I want to go. It’s getting there that’s the problem. Every idea I come up with seems lamer than a barn full of three-legged horses about five seconds after it crawls out of my brain. What to do? It’s hard to get your subconscious to be brilliant when you’ve spent the past few weeks waking up at 5 a.m. instead of 6 just to squeeze in another hour of writing time amid editing projects, this blog, marketing and promotion stuff, household chores that have to be done, and looking after two boys and a mother in recovery from knee surgery. (Luckily, my husband can pretty much look after himself.) So, naturally, I turn to the one thing I can always count on (aside from my spouse) to be there for me when I’m stressed.

Food. Not eating it, though I’ll get to that eventually. I mean making it. So far, today’s big winners are my thrice-weekly batch of challah, Chinese vegetable soup with miniature chicken-and-cilantro dumplings, and roasted beets for borscht. And, oh yes, tonight’s dessert: apple pie.

I cheat, I admit. I don’t make my own pie crust, not with so many perfectly fine roll-out doughs available. (I cheated on the Chinese soup, too; the bok choy and napa cabbage and carrots and bell pepper came from my CSA, not my own garden, and the dumplings came from Costco. Clearly, I can only claim to be a quasi-Serious Foodie.) But the apples… ah, now those are perfection. We picked them ourselves, my sweetheart and our almost-ten year old and our hulking teenager and I, on Columbus Day—which was just about the last truly beautiful fall day around here. Since then, it’s been cold, cold, cold and rain, rain, rain. I hate it when November weather comes early.

Anyway, back to the apples. Fujis and Suncrisps, a nice combo of sweet and tart. Quartered and then sliced thin as I can get them, tossed with cinnamon and vanilla and allspice and just enough flour for thickening the juice as they cook, then piled thick across the bottom crust in my deep-dish glass pie pan. Sometimes I add a splash of brandy just for fun, but today I’d be more inclined to drink it. Which does NOT help with the writer’s block, Dylan Thomas to the contrary.

Atop the apples goes a drizzle of honey, the last of the jar we got through the Rosh Hashanah fundraiser at our temple. It comes from a local apiary that provides work for ex-convicts; they raise their own bees, harvest and bottle and distribute the honey, and it’s a hundred times sweeter and more flavorful than the stuff you find in the little plastic bears on grocery-store shelves. Then a few flakes of shaved fresh ginger, some dots of butter, and the top crust laid over the whole thing. Crimp the edges, make four well-placed slits in the dough for steam to escape through, and I’m good to go.

It’s remarkable how making food unlocks other forms of creativity. I don’t know if it’s the same for other writers, or other foodies for that matter, but something unlocks in my brain when my hands are busy concocting some gustatory delight. Suddenly ideas bound to the fore, and only some of them look lame on closer inspection. Quite a few are even worth writing about, just to see where they go. Like this blog post, for one. I had an empty brain for this when I sat down at my laptop—but after getting up and playing with food awhile, the words finally began to come.

Food is magic. Especially apple pie, most especially in October when the chill creeps in through the walls and all you want is warmth plus comfort food. The pie will go in the oven later this afternoon, warming my house and my heart with its scent. Not to mention my tastebuds when it’s finally time to savor a slice.

Who knows, by then maybe I’ll have another whole chapter done.

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On Turning 50

Really?

Really?

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold,
Where yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang…”

Okay, hold on. I’m not that old. Yet. A mere half-century. A spring chicken, really. They say the first sixty years are the hardest. Or is that the first seventy? What with advances in medical technology—for those who can afford it—is eighty the new forty? I should ask my mother. She’s eighty-three and recovering beautifully from surgery for a badly arthritic knee. Tough old bird, my mom. I should be that robust when I’m her age.

Age. Not a fun subject for me recently. Funny, I didn’t have a problem turning forty. Forty didn’t feel old. I got a lot of entertaining mileage out of jokes about finally qualifying as a “middle-aged crank,” who could start berating manners-challenged, random strangers for not picking up their litter and throwing it away properly, or putting their emptied grocery carts in the designated collection spot instead of leaving them any old where in the parking lot. “Common courtesy beyond you, is it? What, were you born in a barn? The rules apply to everyone, you know. That includes you, Chicky Boom-Boom.” And so on. My alter-ego, righteously crabby and way-too-intense domestic diva Prudential Blatz, could come out and play whenever I felt like it. She has that middle-aged crank sensibility; forty was the perfect age for her. As for my real self, I’d been married a decade, just had my second kid, and felt like I was hitting my stride. Forty gave me gravitas without making it a synonym for decline.

Fifty is different. Fifty is weird. I bless my friends who are in their latter fifties or sixties now, and who scoff gently at me when I talk of feeling old. They are dynamos, these women (and some men as well). As full of energy as any youngster of twenty- or thirty-something, but with a lot more grit because of the life lessons under their belts. I wish I was where they are, aware of their years but not letting it matter a damn. I would like it not to matter that, barring extremely good luck in the genetics department, I almost certainly have less time remaining to me than I’ve already lived. I’m on the downslope, and all of a sudden there doesn’t seem to be enough time left to accomplish things. To write all those novels, see all those foreign places, learn all those fun things like how to speak Gaelic or read Hebrew or play the piano or the Celtic harp. Where did the time go, and how do I carve out enough of what’s left between earning a living, running the house, being a mom, and everything else on my daily to-do list?

I know at least partly why fifty is weird. Our family lost two important members in 2011 and 2012, my mother-in-law and my dad. Mama Sylvia right before Thanksgiving, my father two days before the following Christmas. We’re down by half of the vanguard generation—the parents who stand in the gap between us and death, with our children coming up on the road of life behind us. I still have my mother and my father-in-law, but I can see myself moving into that vanguard spot, and I’m not ready. I’m not sure anyone ever is.

Not that there’s any way to stop it. Part of life is that it moves on. Usually, though, we’re not so aware of how relentless that process is. We bury that awareness under mundane concerns and ordinary joys, taking each day’s routine for granted. Until something happens—a loss, a life-change, a birthday with a certain number attached—and awareness bursts through like blinding light through clouds. “I was blind, but now I see.” Amazing Grace.

Maybe it is an amazing grace, to be able to see that downslope and not be afraid of it. Or, if we are afraid, to be something else as well. Inspired, energized, courageous. Determined not to drift, to instead make what we can of our moments and treasure them as they pass. Ordinary or extra-special, shot through with happiness or weighted with pain, doesn’t matter. They’re ours, every single damned one, and we can never be sure exactly how many we still have. That alone makes them, as the saying goes, pearls beyond price. Even the downright annoying moments, like the ones we spend getting stuck in the 15-or-less checkout line behind the woman with sixteen cans of soup who wants to pay with exact change, or waiting on hold for tech support somewhere in Calcutta to help you figure out where your #$#%@ computer left its brain.

Okay, fifty. I see your gauntlet now, like a challenge at my feet. Time to step forward and pick it up.

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Food (Stamps) for Thought

Still photo from the 1948 film Oliver Twist, directed by David Lean

Still photo from the 1948 film Oliver Twist, directed by David Lean

It’s Friday, and it’s been three weeks since the last time I made bread, which means it’s challah time (challah-day?) again. So I spent a chunk of this morning in my kitchen, happily mixing up my usual batch of challah dough, listening to Stephanie Miller and the mooks on the radio talking about the food-stamp vote in the House of Reps. Ironic, to be hearing that subject discussed while throwing together not just one loaf of challah, but three. To have the abundance to be able to do that—no problem for us, affording sufficient yeast, flour, honey, eggs, olive oil for three Shabbat dinners’ worth of challah—while 217 Congresscritters who each earn three or four times (at least!) as much as working Americans’ median wage solemnly cast votes to ensure that those with little to eat will get even less. In many cases, nothing at all.

They like to quote Bible verses when they engage in their cruelty, these Congresscritters. GOP Congresscritters, to be precise. Only the modern nutbag version of what used to be the “party of Lincoln” indulges in this sort of pious nastiness these days. “‘Those who will not work, neither shall they eat,’” intones one particularly hypocritical gentleman, Rep. Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, who personally took the US taxpayer for $3.48 million in crop subsidies that he surely doesn’t need between 1999 and 2012. Seventy thousand dollars in 2012 alone (http://onforb.es/10mlKE8). Take a moment to imagine that. I guess he figures he works, therefore he gets to eat. Though I’m not sure you can call what Rep. Fincher and those like him do in Congress “work.” Especially when they all keep taking vacations.

The Bible verse I wish they’d quote is Matthew 25, 34-45. It’s a long passage, but the heart of it is this: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did unto me.” And its counterpart, for those who deliberately turn away from the needs of others: “Truly I say to you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do unto me.” This is a fairly basic lesson in how to treat one’s fellow human beings, yet the right-wingers have an amazing amount of trouble with it. Do they not see poor people as human? Do they truly believe that low-income Americans who need SNAP to get by are mostly lazy slackers who’d rather exist on $4.50 a day grudgingly provided by the (somewhat) better off than get a job that pays a little better? They’re so proud of the “work requirements” in their spiffy new SNAP-cuts bill. Are they not aware that most of those receiving SNAP benefits are the working poor, the elderly, those too disabled to work, and children? Those last three aren’t groups we usually expect to sing for their supper. Then again, with these Congress-grifters, all expectations are off. They happily swill from the public trough, sucking up money they don’t need, while inveighing against others in far greater need than they.

I look around my kitchen, and I have so much. So much that I could easily take for granted. A jar of preserved lemons slowly pickling in a corner. My three-loaf batch of fresh bread dough. Banana-chocolate chip muffins I threw together this morning just to use up the dead bananas in my fridge. Four different kinds of breakfast cereal. We’re getting low on fruit, but I can go out later and buy whatever looks good: apples, grapes, pears, maybe a pint of blueberries. Fresh fruit, even organic if I feel like splurging. I don’t have to think twice about it. And our family isn’t among the one percent, not by a long shot. But I don’t have a Wal-mart job, nor does my husband. We’re lucky that way. Too many others in this country aren’t, and now a benighted chunk of Congress has just done its best to make their lives even harder. All in the name of God and righteousness, of course.

“Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, this you do unto me.” Got news for you, GOP-ers who voted for this travesty: You just did harm to God, in the persons of His/Her creations. I think (S)He’s going to be a wee mite pissed off.

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Thoughts in a Time of War

thundercloudsIt’s Rosh Hashanah, the New Year (if you’re Jewish), two days that celebrate the start of the year 5774. A time when people wish each other a year of sweetness, a year of blessing and peace. The wish for peace was invoked several times during the 2 1/2-hour service we sat through yesterday morning, and each time it rang oddly in my ear. Because I couldn’t help thinking: How does one seek peace when war is once again erupting into the headlines–and once again, the United States is this close to becoming part of it?

It’s easy enough to say we shouldn’t get involved. I’ve heard all the excuses. It’s not our fight, we can’t be the world’s policeman, we don’t know who the “good guys” are, violence only begets more violence, we can’t fix someone else’s civil war. The deeply fringe-y, “it’s a false flag, engineered by the military-industrial complex/fossil fuel industry to fatten their profits/take over this pipeline/that oilfield/those natural gas deposits.” And my favorites, variations on a theme: “We kill innocent kids with drones, so we’re just as bad as Assad,” or, “You’re just as dead from bombs and bullets as from poison gas.” Both offered as reasons that not only should we not get involved, we have no right to get involved. No right to mourn those killed by sarin gas, or to be outraged at the atrocity of that weapon’s use because we’ve winked and nodded at–or been guilty of–other atrocities in our day.

I am not comfortable with these excuses or formulations, even though many of them have a point. Several have very good points, in fact. And yet it seems just as facile to talk of “punishment” and “sending a message” by lobbing a few cruise missiles toward selected hard targets in Syria and calling it a day. What does this really do that’s of any earthly use? Whose lives can it save? Whose lethal toys does it take away so they can’t do any more damage? What justice does it serve, and how in the name of any God or Goddess in whom humans might believe can it possibly bring peace closer?

I don’t have an answer for this. Many people wiser than I don’t have answers for it, either. And yet we have to choose, we have to act. That phrase includes not acting, by the way. Doing nothing–militarily or otherwise–is an action, a choice, in itself. For those who believe we can and should do nothing except wag a finger in Syria’s direction at the use of banned chemical weapons against civilians, that may end up being the least awful of the choices available–but please don’t pretend that it isn’t a deliberate choice and won’t have negative consequences of its own.

So what do we do with this awful situation, on the birthday of a new year when we devoutly wish for peace? What peace, what blessing, what sweetness can we hope for in the face of the choice ahead? For it is our choice, too. Not just President Obama’s, not just Secretary of State John Kerry’s, not just Congress’s. Ours as well, because we are citizens of this country, and on a decision of this magnitude, we must do our best to make our voices heard.

I find myself going back to something else from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. A phrase in Hebrew: Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom. Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day. This day, and all days when we face the obligation to weigh terrible choices, to pick from among them, and to speak out. Such power we have, and the responsibility to use it with wisdom. We may make the wrong choice; we may rue the consequences. But we must think things through as best we can, and then we must speak up.

I pray for wisdom on the part of our President, our Congress, and those whose testimony in the coming days will directly affect the choices our leaders make. And I will add my voice, small though it is, before the time to speak runs out.

I don’t have an answer yet. But I will try to find one. Will you?

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Comfort Food

bread doughI am in my kitchen on this bright Friday morning, surrounded by food. Okay, sure—who wouldn’t be, in a kitchen? But I’m not talking about breakfast cereal in the cabinet, orange juice and milk and deli meat in the fridge, coffee beans in my freezer, or the out-of-season clementines shipped from Chile that I was unwise enough to waste $4.99 plus tax on early last week. I’m talking about food I grew or made myself. Green beans and cherry tomatoes from my garden that I picked half an hour ago. And the challah dough in front of me, soft and with a few sticky spots left as I knead it to smooth elasticity before setting it to rest in the big blue mixing bowl.

It’s comfort food. Not the usual meaning of the term, familiar from pop psychology as either stuff we loved to eat when we were kids (looking at you, mac and cheese!) or stuff we pig out on when we’re stressed (cue Rhapsody for Ben & Jerry’s). A different kind of food, that brings me comfort because I had something to do with it. I planted it and watched it grow, or I’ve made it from scratch so often that the ingredients and proportions take up real estate in my head, like a favorite Shakespeare monologue or show tune. I can recite Puck’s “If we shadows have offended” speech, sing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”, or throw together challah in my sleep. (Not that I’d be inclined to try. Being mom to a teen and an almost-ten year-old, with three freelance jobs besides, I get little enough quality sleep as it is.)

Maybe this is a foodie thing, but there’s something about making your own bread, or cooking with your own home-grown vegetables and herbs, that’s deeply soothing. Especially in moments of transition, when what you’ve been used to thinking of as your life starts to reshape itself in ways both obvious and subtle. Obvious: My father died two days before Christmas 2012, my mother-in-law thirteen months before that, and my husband and I are still working through the grieving process. When a parent dies, you don’t just lose them; you also lose your sense of yourself as the middle generation, shielded from a too-sharp awareness of your own mortality by the fact that they’re still standing on the road of life ahead of you. Now they’re gone, you’re getting older, and your kids (if you have them) are coming right up behind you. Which puts you in the vanguard role where your parents used to be. I am not ready for that, and I’m not sure anyone is. Yet it comes upon us all, just the same.

Subtle: Our older son is a high-school sophomore. A mere three years away from college. I can now envision the day he’ll be gone, except for holiday breaks when he comes home to visit. He’s talking about schools in Texas, or maybe Georgia—for a native Chicagoan he’s remarkably intolerant of cold winters, speaks longingly of a January where the temperature never drops much below fifty degrees. As for our younger son, he’s reached the age where a hug from Mom is met with an eye roll if it’s in private, dodged outright if attempted in public. He walks himself to and from school, is a stalwart on the chess team, and knows how to slice up a lime without risking his fingertips. Soon enough he’ll be the kid who doesn’t get home from school until dinnertime or after because of basketball practice or choir rehearsal or some other high-school-kid thing. The mom job is shifting under my feet, and though I’ll have more time to focus on writing and editing and audiobooks, the entire publishing world is shifting too—just when I’m having the most trouble mustering the mental energy to keep up with the learning curve.

So I turn to my garden, and my every-three-weeks challah baking ritual. I revel in the abundance of edible green stuff in my own backyard, a visible reminder that some hard work actually does pay off. I savor the feel of the bread dough under my hands, the yeasty scent of it tickling my nose as I work. Even on days when it feels like I can’t do anything else right—think through a scene, write a decent sentence, judge someone else’s manuscript, record just two minutes of an audiobook without a dozen mouth noises and flubs—I can at least make bread. Pick green beans. Slice cherry tomatoes and toss them with feta and garlic as the world’s greatest topping for baked eggplant. Throw nectarines and fresh-picked blueberries—the last fruits of summer—into a baking dish with rolled oats and dark brown sugar and a touch of butter, and voilà, fruit crisp to die for.

I am foodie, hear me roar. Maybe I’m off-balance now, but sooner or later—with a little help from my comfort food—I’ll be back.

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The Twelve Dollar Vera Wang, Part 3

dancing couple

“So where is he?” Eva asked Janey when their paths crossed in the industrial-sized gilt-and-marble ladies’ room of the swanky hotel where the reception was.

Janey smudged an edge of her freshly applied lipstick with a delicate swipe of her pinky. “Who?”

“The hunky nice guy you promised me a dance with. Who isn’t Alec. A guarantee, you said.”

“I’m working on it,” Janey answered, her tone breezy.

“It’s been three hours.” Eva eyed her hair in the mirror. The French twist was slipping, damn it. Why couldn’t her hair behave itself? She tried to repair it and only made things worse. “This party won’t last much longer.”

“Hey. Cinderella didn’t dance with Prince Charming until just before midnight.”

That made Eva laugh. “I don’t need Prince Charming. Just one dance. So far I haven’t found a likely partner unclaimed.”

Janey patted her shoulder. “The night’s not over yet.”

It was before long, though. All too soon the band played their last number and started packing up, while servers cleared cake plates and coffee cups from the linen-swathed tables that ringed the dance floor and the last remaining guests straggled toward the coatroom. Eva felt a sharp pang of disappointment and told herself to quit being such a baby. Dance or no dance, she’d had an okay time, hadn’t she? She drifted over to the dessert table, where a few miniature cupcakes lingered on near-empty platters. That was a thing these days, she gathered—having a wedding “cake” that was actually a giant cupcake pyramid. “Chocolate,” she muttered. “There has to be a chocolate one left…”

“The one with the yellow rose is devil’s food, I think,” a voice said, close by. Warm, friendly. Male. “You won’t hold it against me if I’m wrong, will you?”

She looked up. And up. The man next to her was easily six feet, likely around her own age, wearing dress blacks and holding an instrument case. Shaggy dark hair sprang back from his forehead, framing a face with an interesting touch of cragginess to it, and the look in his gray eyes told her he liked what he saw. A hint of shyness came with that look, as if he wasn’t entirely sure of himself. Or of her, maybe.

She liked him for that, and smiled to put him at ease. “Depends. Boring old white cake, yes. Lemon or something else with flavor, no. I guess I’ll take a chance.” Those last words brought to mind Janey’s comment in the thrift store, and she felt a blush creep up her cheeks.

He reached for a cupcake with a red rose on it, then snagged two napkins and handed her one. “I’ve been watching you all night,” he said, coloring faintly himself. “Not in a stalker kind of way, though. The way you do when you’re wondering if the knockout in the gorgeous dress will talk to you.” He grinned at her. “I’m Daniel.”

“Eva,” she said. She eyed his instrument case. “You’re with the band?”

He nodded, and they chatted awhile about music and weddings and how hard it was to make a living as a performer. He was easy to talk to, with a dry humor and no compulsion to fill every conversational space. Not like Brandon at all. She finished her cupcake—it was devil’s food—licked frosting off one finger, and realized she was enjoying herself more now than she had all evening. And just when things were ending, she thought wistfully.

“So, um…” Daniel dusted crumbs off his hands. He was looking shy again, but determined. “Would you like to dance?”

“There’s no music,” she said, just as the hotel’s sound system kicked in. They must have turned it off for the reception. Faint but definite, she recognized the opening notes of “Brown-Eyed Girl”.

“Great song.” Daniel held out a hand. “May I?”

Shut up and take a chance floated through her mind. She smiled and laid her palm across his. Okay, then.

He clasped her fingers, and together they moved out onto the dance floor.

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