You know what? I am never going to be less than a size 10. I am never going to not want to sing along to a Disney musical if in its presence. I am always going to feel the need to plan things, to be obsessive and make lists, to send out texts and emails, “Hey do you want to…?”
I will procrastinate by cooking. I will cope by eating things that I find delicious. I will never be able to skip more than two days in a row at the gym because I am addicted to endorphins. I will start books (particularly “thinky” non-fiction books) that I feel like I “ought to” read and never finish them, opting for really addictive, well-written fiction instead. I will feel slightly guilty about this, and about the fact that sometimes I listen to music in the mornings on the way to work instead of NPR, but not guilty enough to stop. I will go weeks without writing and when I finally set aside time to do so, I will think “Why don’t I do this more often?”
Every once in a while, I will snap at Jill for something that totally isn’t even her fault. I won’t call my mother as often as I probably should. I will tell people “I love you” more times than is necessary, in ways that they’re not sure how to respond to, but that won’t stop me. Sometimes I may pretend to be asleep when the dog needs to go out in the middle of the night.
If you ask, I’m going to tell it like it is. (I may do that even if you don’t ask). I’m going to save bacon fat in a jar in the fridge & then fry eggs in it, I’m going to flirt with good looking waiters, I’m going to lust after unnecessary shoes, I will probably always be a little bit vain, and I am never going to not want dessert.
ORANGE POLENTA CAKE
adapted from Bon Appetit
I love the texture that polenta brings to sweets; the pairing with orange is classically Italian, though this cake is more like a pound cake than anything else. The original recipe calls for plums & blackberries to be served alongside, but I stuck to just the latter. I also substituted good old-fashioned whipped cream for the more high-maintenance (though delicious sounding) buttermilk ice cream suggested.
1 ¼ cups flour
¾ medium-grind polenta
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1 cup + 2 T sugar
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
finely grated zest of 1 orange
4 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup plain yogurt (preferably whole milk)
pan: 9x5x3-inch loaf pan, buttered & floured
Whisk the dry ingredients together and set aside. In a separate bowl, beat the sugar, butter, & zest together until fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl and blending well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.
Alternately add the dry ingredients and the yogurt, starting & ending with the dry ingredients. Mix until just combined, then pour the batter into the loaf pan and smooth the top.
Bake until the cake is golden and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean or with dry crumbs clinging to it. This may take anywhere from 50 minutes to 1 hour & 15 minutes, depending on your oven. Cool the cake on a rack in the pan before running a knife around the edges and inverting the cake.
I’d like to make an exhortation, if you’ll indulge me.
Go have the conversation nobody wants to have; talk to the people in your life about how you do and do not want to die. Get them to do the same for you. Be clear, even if it’s painful. Put it in writing and get that writing notarized. Make sure everyone knows where the papers are. Please. Do it right now.
These things are hard to think about, or talk about, or plan for. But I speak from experience when I say that they are among the greatest gifts you can give your family, even as you vehemently hope they will never have to use them. Because four years ago, I did.
I miss my dad; I don’t think that’s ever going away. But I also know that my mother and I were able to make the medical decisions that he would have wanted us to make. We did not have to guess, or wonder. And while there is much else painful about the way I lost my dad, that certainty is a clear patch of bright relief.
So there you have it—the only piece of advice I’ll ever dispense on this blog. It is what seemed right, more than anything else, on this day.
Subhash Chander Mehra
April 27, 1942 – July 22, 2006
ALMOND ORANGE TEA CAKES
adapted from a recipe I clipped from Martha Stewart Living years ago
This may have been my dad’s favorite thing that I make. These little cakes are decadent (hello butter!), a little fussy (you can omit the candied orange peel, but I wouldn’t), and go perfectly with a cup of tea, all qualities my dad valued.
1 2/3 cup powdered sugar, plus more for garnish
1 cup almonds, toasted
¾ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup flour
6 egg whites, slightly beaten
zest of 2 oranges, chopped fine
1 T orange blossom water, also called orange flower water (optional)
¼ tsp. salt
pans: mini loaf pans or ramekins, buttered & stored in the freezer
Grind the almonds to a near-paste in the food processor. Turn out into a large bowl, then stir in powdered sugar, flour, salt, & zest. Whisk in egg whites, then slowly stir in the melted butter and orange blossom water (if using).
Pour batter into pans, then place on a baking sheet for easy transfer. Bake until the dough just begins to rise, about ten minutes. Reduce the oven to 400˚ and continue to bake another 8-10 minutes or until the cakes brown. Turn the oven off but leave the cakes in for another 10 minutes. (I know this seems like a crazy method, but it works. Trust me.)
Cool the cakes on a rack, then turn out and serve warm or at room temperature, with a dusting of powdered sugar and/or strips of candied orange peel (recipe follows).
CANDIED ORANGE PEEL
zest of 3-4 oranges
Cover the zest with water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Once boiling, drain the zest in a colander and repeat the boiling process. Do this a total of three times, to remove the bitterness from the pith.
Rise out the saucepan, then add 1 ½ cups of water and 1 cup of sugar. Bring to a boil, letting the sugar dissolve to make a simple syrup. Add the zest and let the strips of orange simmer in the syrup until they become translucent.
Cool, then store the zest in the fridge, with or without the syrup. I like to use the latter in cocktails, especially margaritas or Cosmopolitans.
If I believed in super-long blog post titles, this one would be “LEMON SQUARES: HOW TO WIN FRIENDS & INFLUENCE PEOPLE.”
When I was in graduate school (in the achingly gorgeous desert land of Tucson, Arizona), I had a nonfiction writing workshop once a week. Every week. For two years.
Of those Lord-knows-how-many workshops, I estimate that I brought baked goods to class seventy-five percent of the time. And of those times that I brought baked good to class, lemon squares took up a disproportionately large share.
I became famous for my lemon squares. Their presence was often (and still is!) requested at workshops, parties, meetings, as presents, etc. I can’t prove that it’s true, but I believe my lemon squares won me some goodwill with colleagues who might have otherwise written more scathing critiques of my manuscripts or been all-to-eager to shred my narratives to pieces.
Now, you may want to know, what is my lemon square secret? What mystery ingredient have I conjured to take these humble little shortbread-crust-bottomed, custard-and-powdered-sugar-topped suckers to the next level of deliciousness?
Well, nothing, really. Mine is a really basic recipe, one that my hands will practically make for me at this point. There’s nothing particularly magical about them, but they’ve never failed me. Perhaps it comes down to this: the gesture of baking something from scratch, of feeding others something you took time to make with your own hands, and make well, is magical. It breeds relatedness and good feeling. It’s just a kind thing to do. (Especially in grad school, when everyone’s poor & hungry).
So, even though these are not red, white, & blue; even though they do not utilize the plump berries and sugar-crystalled watermelon of the season, I humbly offer you my lemon square recipe and urge you to bake some up. Walk a plate over to your neighbors. Take some to work on Monday (when everyone will be grumpy about having to be back at work on Monday). Or just add them to the Fourth of July potluck pile and watch them disappear.
ARIZONA LEMON SQUARES
makes 16 modest or 9 generous squares
oven: Preheat to 350.
pan: 8 inch square (double recipe to fit into larger, rectangular pan)
To make your life easier, line the pan with foil and then spray it well with cooking spray. You can just spray the pan, but you’ll have to scrub it afterwards.
crust: 1 ½ cup flour
½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
¼ cup powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
I always throw these ingredients straight into the pan and crumble them with my fingers—no need to mess up a bowl! When you’ve got a pebbly-looking mixture, press down so the crust covers the bottom of the pan and a little bit up the sides. Smooth down with the bottom of a small glass or bowl, if you like.
Bake the crust for 15-20 minutes, or until it’s just getting brown. While the crust is baking, make the filling.
filling: 2 eggs
1 cup sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
Zest the lemons first (I like a lot of zest, so I use both), then chop the zest finely and set aside. Juice the lemons next—you’ll may only need one lemon to reach the desired 2 T. Add juice to zest. Throw in the rest of the ingredients, adding the eggs last.
Beat everything together either with a whisk or a mixer (I’ve done both, and this is really one recipe where you don’t have to get your Kitchen Aid dirty). Mix until everything’s frothy and thick, about 3 minutes.
When the hot crust comes out of the oven, pour the filling on top. Bake another 20-25 minutes or until the top is just turning brown and is set in the middle. Cool on a wire rack for about 5 minutes, then dust with a generous amount of powdered sugar (sometimes I do two passes with the powdered sugar to get a thick layer).
Cool completely, or as long as you can wait before cutting into squares.
* When I can find them, I use Meyer lemons, which make for exquisite lemon squares. Just dial down the sugar to ¾ or even ½ cup, since Meyer lemons are not as tart.
Please forgive me if this post is a bit lacking in wit and zest (get it? zest? key lime pie? ha! I crack myself up)—school is out for summer, my grading is all done, and I’ve been busy celebrating the start of vacation with Arianne, my BFFFL (that’s Best Friend Forever for Life to those of you unfamiliar with 6th grade girl lingo).
So I’m afraid I don’t have a super-clever story to tie in here, just the fact that Arianne really loves my key lime pie. And key lime pie is a summer classic, so it’s therefore being included in our Summer Classics Series (see how that works?)
Well, I lied. I actually do have kind of a cool story to tell you. As you probably know, sweetened condensed milk is a traditional ingredient in key lime pie. But what you may not know is how condensed milk came to be.
In 1856, Gail Borden (of Borden’s Eagle Brand) developed the process by which milk could be condensed, and thereby safely stored, in cans for long periods of time. Until that point, cow’s milk was basically only safe to store for a few hours without cooling or refrigeration.
Mr. Borden was inspired to create a long-term storage method for milk after traveling to the United States on a ship from England; due to the poor quality of milk onboard, several children lost their lives. The introduction of condensed milk is credited with being an important factor in reducing the infant mortality rate in the United States.
Not too shabby, right? Three cheers for Mr. Borden! He (and this story) are the reason I am doggedly brand-loyal when it comes to my sweetened condensed milk (and no, they’re not paying me to say that.)
Whatever brand you buy, I recommend you get yourself some sweetened condensed milk and make a key lime pie. It tastes exactly the way summer should.
KEY LIME PIE
Serves 8-10, or just me & Arianne
I promise that going through the effort of juicing your own limes (and key limes, at that) is so very worth it for this pie. This time of year, little mesh bags of key limes (also sometimes called Persian limes) are available pretty cheaply, and their fragrance & taste are just on a whole different level.
To get maximum juice out of each lime, I recommend microwaving the limes in a bowl for about thirty seconds and then rolling them on the counter before slicing them open. If you have leftover lime juice, might I suggest you make some margaritas?
For the crust:
1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs
(store bought works, but the homemade kind tends not to resemble sawdust as much)
6 T butter, melted
¼ cup sugar (double if you want a sweet crust)
pan: 9-inch pie pan
Combine above ingredients—if making your own graham cracker crumbs, you can mix everything in the food processor. Otherwise, a bowl & spoon should work! Press mixture into the pan, being sure to move up the sides. Bake crust for 5-8 minutes, until you smell its graham crackery-goodness all over your kitchen. Be sure not to over bake as the crust can easily turn dark.
For the filling:
1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
2/3 cup key lime juice
zest of 2-3 limes (2 T), finely chopped
Beat the yolks and zest in the bowl of a stand mixer for a few minutes on high speed until the yolks lighten in color and texture. Pour in condensed milk slowly and continue mixing at high speed—the mixture should thicken quickly. Lower the speed to add the lime juice, mixing slowly until just combined.
Pour filling into the crust, lick the spatula (optional), and bake the pie for 8-10 minutes. You want the filling to set—that means no jiggling in the middle when you give the pan a shake. Cool completely on a wire rack, then refrigerate.
I like to throw my key lime pie in the freezer for about 15-20 minutes before I plan to serve it. Yummy! Like so many desserts, this one is especially good with homemade whipped cream.