April 30, 2004

taste test

What should I write about tonight? The cake I baked today known formally as the Test Cake, a dry run for Damianís upcoming birthday party. Also known as the ďShould we order an expensive cake from Sweet Lady Jane or should we save the bucks and dump a bunch of butter and flour into a mixer?Ē cake.

Or should I write about an interesting article I read online, an interview with the head of USCís screenwriting department? In the first half he talks about writing and his overall career and later he discusses the specifics of how heís currently adapting a book from a series Iíve never heard of before but Iím sure you all have (The Three Investigators).

The cake may be more fun to contemplate, though. It wasnít easy today, finding a good yellow cake recipe. It took a while, much Google searching and cookbooks strewn about the guest room, before I found a likely candidate. I chose it because it included almond extract as well as vanilla, and Iím a sucker for almond anything. I also chose it because it instructs you to separate the eggs and beat the whites until peaks form. I hate beating whites, even with a mixer. Iím terrified Iíll overmix and make mush. But I love the results in cake. Lighter, almost airy. I wanted something that would stand out as Someone Made This, Isnít That Impressive? Because after all if youíre going to go to the trouble, it should be brag-worthy, right?

On the other hand, the interview with David Howard struck an unexpected chord for me. In it, he talks about an enlightening workshop he took with Frank Daniel that changed the course of his life (exciting him enough to make him want to write scripts). He says, in part:

DH: One of the most important things I learned from Frank in the first hour (and throughout our years of working together) was that a story is about the experience you are creating for the audience. Like many beginning writers, I thought all I needed to do was figure out my characters and the world and the conflicts and then the story was done. I didn't realize that is only part of the process. The "telling" in storytelling is consciously striving to have an intended impact on the audience - to give them an exciting and meaningful experience through the lives of the characters. To create that experience we make thousands of decisions about what portion of the lives and world and conflicts we reveal when, in what order, for what impact. That's true storytelling.

I think itís very true. So many writers Ė and here Iím thinking of aspiring screenwriters but also novelists and even bloggers and journallers Ė donít seem to pay attention to this simple principle: youíre not writing in a vacuum. You write to be read or itís just mental masturbation. And if you write to be read, you do need to be aware of your audience, of how your words will affect them. You need to craft your story for the reader, to satisfy (or intentionally leave them unsated). To provoke a laugh or a sigh.

And yet itís not that simple after all. Because you can go too far in the other direction. I know I did. I was so concerned with my readers, with being liked, with seeking approval, that I wasnít writing from the gut. I was second and third guessing myself. I was choosing my story ideas for cleverness rather than personal resonance. Only when a story resonates with the writer does it have enough creative juice to sustain the reader as well.

Back to today and my cake baking exercise. You must understand, this was a serious endeavor. Involving at least four bowls and four sticks of butter (two for the cake, two for the icing). Also much sifting and stirring and folding. Also some questions about proper form: Should I really put the wax paper in the cake tins? Wonít the cake get wrinkly? And: will this work as well if I use regular flour instead of pastry flour? What about the sugar? Am I really supposed to sift it? Itís sugar! How fluffy will it get? And is the icing really supposed to be this hard to spread? Ah, more milk. That's the secret.

When I bake, I feel like a chemist mixing proper amounts of this and that. Though I may use a knife to level the tops of measuring cups instead of a scale to weigh the liquid in beakers, Iím still mixing careful proportions of various elements so they can combine and interact and ultimately transmute under heat into something altogether different and new.

Dare I say it? This process, itís not altogether unlike writing. The work, the disparate ingredients, the careful but ultimately unpredictable melding and of course the outcome. Does it taste good? Is it enjoyable on the palate, in the brain? Is it a good read/a tasty treat? Once again it comes back to audience. The passion of the baker, the enthusiasm of the chef, does it translate?

Dan and Damian came home to find a cake on the table with one piece already removed. The authorís own reread, if you will. They cut their own slices. They declared it a success. Damian had another piece for dessert later. He ate nearly all of it, which if you know Damian means he loves it. Heís not a cake person. Which goes back to why I worked so hard to unearth just the right recipe to lure this birthday-boy-to-be to relish his own birthday cake. A slightly eggy, very buttery yellow cake with a moist crumb, with chocolate icing like frozen waves and strawberry filling between the layers. Apparently this audience, my most important judge, gave it a thumbs up.

Though he did tell me that next time I should make a whole cake, not one with a bite already taken out of it. Not too hard to accommodate. My stomachís so full of cake I donít think Iíll eat any of the next iteration. Just as there comes a time I can no longer reread my own story, I apparently have my cake limits as well. Anyone want a piece of delicious homemade cake? Itís on my dining room table waiting for its moment in the limelight.

Posted by Tamar at 11:00 PM

April 17, 2004

dinner at Sona

The inside of my mouth tastes like caramel. I still have the remembered sensation of soft custard sliding down my throat. My belly feels warm and full.

We went out tonight. We had a babysitter for the first time in about two and a half years and we went out for an amazing meal.

It felt strange walking down the street without Damian. It felt strange walking into the restaurant, the one year old Sona, a sleek modern room, gray and stone with rippled frosted windows and a skylight, with a flower head floating in water at every table and square plates. An upscale place with waiters in black and busboys who serve your meals in synchronicity: one came from the right down the row of tables, the other from the left, they met at our table and placed the plates in front of us with a solemn flourish. Dan said they were the Matrix busboys.

Maybe it felt odd being adults in such an adult room. We were among the youngest there. This wasnít a beautiful people crowd, this was a rich, self-important crowd. For us, itís a special occasion restaurant. For them, I think, it was another high end restaurant to add to their collection of matchbooks. Well, not for everyone. I caught one couple in their seventies, sitting side by side on the banquette, holding hands and leaning in toward each other. For them, a memorable and romantic evening out.

For us too. The food, the service, the ambience: impeccable. One of the best meals I can remember. Usually when we go out to a nice restaurant, some dishes are good, maybe even great, but others fall flat or everythingís pleasant and good but not sublime. If I feel like I can make it at home, I feel cheated of that transcendent experience of being in the hands of an inspired chef. But at Sona tonight, there were no missteps. Not a one. Do you know how impossibly rare that is?

So. The food. First a busboy brought over a tin of breadsticks, each as long as my arm. I selected one, then the man brought them over to Dan for his choice. It felt like choosing a cigar, only considerably more delicate. Tasted good, too. Cheesy. Crunchy. Fresh. The breads came on a wide metal tray, the bread carrier put them on our table with tongs. Sourdough rolls but not too sour (my nearly ubiquitous complaint), with a hard thin crust and a deeply moist center. I bake. I can appreciate the skill it takes to achieve that combination. Also foccacia studded with bits of green olives. Good too. And to accompany them, a square of butter dusted with salt and pepper. Iíve never seen that. A classy touch. But it was that kind of place. All the details both original and just right.

Then the amuse boche, usually a tiny taste of something to whet your appetite but in this case a tray filled with five tiny tastes, a kind of miniature bento box. First the duck eggroll, meaty and crunchy and dense. Then smoked seafood Ė eel? sable? I didnít catch it Ė on a delicately marinated cucumber slice. A perfect bite. Then pickled cauliflower on a paper-thin slice of radish. Pungent and strong in your mouth, a wake-up sort of palate cleanser. Then the pepperiest smidge of hummus on a square of celery. Unusual if not amazing (but then Iím rather fond of my own version of hummus). And finally, beet puree on a tiny toast triangle with a dollop of the creamiest, gentlest dollop of goat cheese I can remember.

What I loved about the selection was the way it went from a meaty bite to strong flavors and then finished with a bite of something both savory and soft. A complete meal sensation in five bites.

But of course that was just the tease.

My appetizer was lobster risotto. I was a little worried: would there be too little lobster? Would it be fresh enough? Iím not a huge fan of risotto. No worries here. The lobster claw was generous (and yes, fresh), the risotto was perfectly cooked and drowning in buttery lobster sauce. So rich. The lobster so gently sweet and flavorful, the rice chewy and the sauce a rich blanket melding it all together in your mouth. I also had two bites of Danís fois gras with Asian pear slices. Intensely flavored, the dark with the lightly sweet.

For an entrťe, I thought about the king salmon confit but ended up going for the braised beef short ribs. Wow. The meat must have been slow cooked, so tender it fell off the bone and tumbled into your mouth the moment you looked longingly at it. So succulent. On a bed of braised red cabbage which in turn rested on a bed of creamy-soft pureed potato which in turn nestled among a drizzle of wine reduction. Haute cuisine brisket. Mmm yeah. I had one bite (he didnít want to share) of Danís lamb medallions with gnocci and some other meat (also lamb?) wrapped in grape leaves. Tasted good too. Very good. Sharper flavors, more distinct. Excellent.

Then dessert. I chose crŤme caramel tart. The custard sat on top of an almond cookie, basically, and had a crŤme brulee hard caramel shell. It rested in a pool of dark berry sauce ringed with slices of starfruit and blood orange and mango and came with a small oval scoop of freshly made fruit sorbet; Iím not sure what kind Ė pomegranate, maybe? Something you wouldnít expect but was sharp and sweet and tart and a perfect foil for the eggy softness of the custard. Dan had chocolate waffles with some French name (should have taken notes, I guess), accompanied by homemade peanut butter ice cream. I had just one taste of the combination of cold nut butteryness and warm waffle but it was good too.

Then the final treat. The waitress brought over two tiny boxes tied with ribbon. Inside each was a final amuse, though Iím sure thereís some other name for it. But just like the five treats to start our meal, these were five little treats to end it. An orange gel with crunch bits of sweetness coating the outside. A similar raspberry gel. A nougat, marshmallowy mortar for the nut bricks. A coconut macaroon. And finally a raspberry meringue cookie; it looked like a miniature pink hamburger bun (the ďburgerĒ was raspberry jam) and tasted like heaven. A suitable ending to an extraordinary meal.

This kind of meal out always makes me feel like Iíve stepped outside my normal life, like Iím living in a fairy tale for the evening. In the past, itís always made me long for the time when it could be part of the fabric of my life rather than a special occasion stretch-the-budget evening. This time I didnít feel that way. Maybe because itís been so long, but the special occasion out-of-time element became part of the ambience for me. Itís important to occasionally treat yourself to something decadent if you can. Itís also important to keep it feeling special.

This did.

Posted by Tamar at 11:01 PM

April 13, 2004

yam intentions

And then there are the nights you intend to have baked yam slices with your meal but just before dinner you discover the bottoms of the slices are nice and juicy (that doesn't sound quite right) but the tops are desiccated and wrinkly looking and altogether unappealing. You flip the poor things over, shove the tray back into the oven, and go off to eat with your family.

A couple of hours later you declare that those items heretofore known as yam slices shall henceforth be referred to as yam chips.

Yes, still in the oven.

Not bad for all that. Kinda tasty, even.

Posted by Tamar at 09:24 PM

April 11, 2004

a home cooked meal

Tonight as I chopped the onion and let it sizzle in the Dutch Oven, as Damian and I fed Wasa crackers into the food processor to make breadcrumbs that I then sprinkled with basil and oregano, as I sliced into the perfectly ripe, amazingly buttery Fuerte avocado and peeled the still-hot candy cane beets, slicing them into quarters to show off their narrow pink and yellow striping, as I laid the buffalo cube steak flat to pick up its layer of tan crumbs, as I chiffonaded the dinosaur kale Ė so delicately laced, like ice on a window Ė and then tossed it into the Dutch Oven to melt into a puddle of green, as I splashed olive oil and balsamic vinegar onto the still-warm beets and so-smooth avocado and tossed them together with a wooden spoon, I felt happy.

I love cooking. I love the busy concentration of it, juggling seven things at once as you rush carefully toward an inevitable conclusion. I love working with my hands, chopping and slicing and turning and stirring. I love the smells: the onion juice on my fingers, the sharp tang of soy sauce, the sweet bite of vinegar and the earthen musk of the beet tops. I love the tastes, the surprise of flavors mixed. I love the alchemy, I love the thinking-not thinking nearly Buddhist mental state. I love the way Damian carries his stool around the kitchen, watching intently and asking so many questions. I love sitting down to a meal that I prepared Ė or better, that Dan and I prepared together, with an assist from our son Ė and tasting the final product, enjoying the experience for itself, the taste of good food on the tongue, the warmth in my belly, but also enjoying the fact that I did this, that pride of an accomplishment, that knowledge that this food is healthy and tasty and made from scratch by a chef who loved her work.

Dan and I used to cook all the time: coq au vin, mousakka, wild mushroom soup, rosemary bread, wilted spinach salad, smoked salmon pizza, custardy flan. The only food in our freezer was either for future food prep or stored leftovers. We never stopped in the frozen food aisle. Now? Well, cooking more than steamed broccoli and some hot dogs is occasion for celebration. I know how it happened. Child, work, exhaustion, who has energy to cook? Cooking as chore, not pleasure. Eating, therefore, also chore. Or hey, letís eat out! Hey, letís spend money! Hey, letís forget the pride and satisfaction of a home cooked meal! Itís inevitable, maybe, given our life. It also feels wrong. It feels like a habit now more than a need. It feels like something I want to change.

It feels like rediscovering myself. Cooking a full meal, trying something a little different. Fancy that.

Posted by Tamar at 09:51 PM | Comments (1)