Thursday, July 25, 2013

Yearning Again for the Motherland

When John and I got home from Ireland (almost a whole year ago...where has the time gone...?), we talked a lot about two things: one, how we wanted to go back, and two, what we would like to do on a return trip.

We agreed we definitely wanted to see more castles. I think, too, I'd like to stay in and explore one region more fully rather than take a brisk trip around the whole country. Perhaps it's the cool weather that's moved into New Jersey today, and maybe it's the grey clouds and slight threat of rain, but I've found myself thinking a lot about Ireland this morning.

And with that thinking came an idea, and a partial plan of what I'd like to do if we are ever blessed enough to go back. When I think of our trip, there are, of course, so many highlights they all sort of blur together in a pastoral scene of green meadows and meandering livestock. But when I think a little bit harder and let the more "white noise" images fade away, the one place that I felt truly at home was standing on the rocky shore of Galway Bay, feeling the ocean spray from the other side of the Atlantic. Listening to wind lash at our window all night, and waking up to see the whitecaps on the water...I really think I left part of my soul there on that shore. John dunked his feet into the lapping waves, baptizing himself in the waters of our homeland (for his last name may be Riggi, but he's also half Murphy).

And so as I thought about it more and more, if--when--we return, I'd like to do a more thorough study of County Galway. We can walk amongst the ancient fishing village of The Claddagh. The national aquarium is even right there. There are castles. There are parks built around the ruins of castles. There is the bustling, vibrant city center. There is Rathbaun Farm and Francis' scones, and Ted the sheepdog.

This, of course, presents some very real logistical questions. We'd be unaccompanied, without a tour guide to help us. We'd have to manage our own transportation. At least we've already been there, so we know what to expect as far as narrow roads, lots of roundabouts, and excellently helpful road signs. Driving on the other side of the car/road? A minor hiccup.

This also presents the question of travel priority, as there is so much in the US John and I want to tackle, and we also very much want to visit Italy and explore the other part of our heritage. Heck, I may even get to Denmark some day, though I can see that as an empty-nester vacation down the line when John and I have more life behind us. So, much to think about, but for now my Irish eyes are smiling at the prospect of returning home.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


This post is going to take twice as long to type. Hamlet is currently curled up on my lap, and is resting his head on my right hand. While the left is free to type per usual, the right one is pinioned down in most devout snuggle time. It's funny how unbalanced it feels to have one hand stymied. Ah, well. Eventually he'll get annoyed enough at my constant movement that he'll adjust. Until then, the beat (on Bordentown) goes on...

There are a few things that invariably calm me when I'm stressed. The best stressbuster in the world for me is a day at the beach. From the moment I get the first smell of salty ocean air, my stress disappears. I don't know where it goes, and I don't care. I have very few thoughts or worries at the beach, outside of when to put on more sunblock and when I feel hot enough to go back into the waves. But this is a special treat. Maybe that's why it's so effective. It's something we can't do everyday, so the charm has never worn off.

Next best is writing, though sometimes when my stress mixes with depression, I can't bring myself to write. But when I do, I feel better afterward nearly every time. It could be a short poem, a blog post, or an email in which I vent to a friend.

Perhaps what has the most direct effect on my racing mind is to clean. I have always felt when my physical world is neat and in order, my mental world will follow. Even taking a few minutes to tidy my desk during a hectic work day reminds to slow down and take a moment to care for myself.

But aside from the beach, what makes me happiest? Baking. Maybe it's the satisfaction that it's something I'm good at. Maybe, too, the act of preparing ingredients, following (or diverting from) a recipe is routine and comforting. Plus, unless it's a more delicate baked good, I can usually have a delicious result in about 20 minutes,

Why am I boring you with all this? Today I left work at noon when the feeling of being overwhelmed finally bubbled over. It's been a stressful few months between work craziness and John's and my start to house hunting. (Wait, what? I know this is news to some of you--I've been blogging the whole process, but will post them all once we've found a place to call'll be an interesting retrospect by then. As well as a testament to our survival.) It is absolutely the most stressful thing we have ever undertaken together, and certainly the biggest financial commitment I am endeavoring after in my own life, let alone my life together with John. So that's all I'll say on the topic for now. The hunt is still very much on the DL, but there you have--I've chucked it out into the void. Stay tuned for more.

So yes. I've been feeling close to the edge for weeks now, and today it all just came out and I couldn't hold it in anymore. I came home, had a good cry, and rested for a while. I guess I should add Hammy to the list of stressbusters. He is so intuitive when it comes to knowing when I'm upset. No sooner had I flopped, face-first, into my pillow than he was already hopping up beside me with a chirp and began nuzzling his face against mine. He then curled up with me and purred like a lawn mower.

Once all of that wallowing was done, I got up, had lunch, and started in on the organizing. I paid bills (less financial clutter...? Maybe simply less money.). I did dishes. I tidied the dining room table. Then I remembered I had buttermilk in the fridge. Scones. Scones must be made. This idea rumbled forward from the back of my mind, and I was off: I didn't have enough regular flour, nor did I have dried fruit, so I decided I'd try some savory scones we could have with dinner tonight. Done deal. Grabbed the whole wheat flour and some fresh grated cheese. Following the familiar recipe felt good, and using whole wheat flour and guessing the "right" amount of cheese felt like just the right amount of daring. Kneading out the dough and cutting small circles felt right. I even tried an egg. Why not? The result is sitting on my dining room table, waiting to be tasted.

When John gets home, we will go to the farmer's market in town, and then, finally, I can taste my little scones. With the herbed butter I made. Oh yeh...I went all out. I softened the half stick of butter I didn't use for the scones and whipped it til it was smooth. Then I added some pepper and rosemary, flavors I figured would complement the nutty whole wheat and cheese of the carbs. Rolled it into a tube using plastic wrap, and it's chilling and re-solidifying now

Looking forward, recipes on my radar to try:
1. Homemade Irish cream (that's right, bitches...makin my own Bailey's) I even have the storage vessels picked out...Kitchen Kapers, you saucy minx...
2. Homemade quick jam (no canning required...perfect for this quasi-lazy chef)
3. Blackberry-lavender scones (as soon as I find some dried lavender...)

All good things to think about! I'll try and will my mind to think of these when it wanders into the Dark Place.

And so now here I sit. Still stressed and still worried, but also a little more accomplished, and with more space on my mental hard drive. In short, it was the recharge that I needed.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Pavlova Perfection

Well, I'm pleased to pronounce I have achieved pavlova perfection. Well, at least as far as I can tell! Never having tried pavlova before, I assume this is what a perfect one tastes like. haha

The meringue was a sinful backdrop for the sweetened mascarpone and fresh fruit that topped it. The meringue itself is yummy, but really the point is to get a little of everything in every bite. Mmm. I will definitely make this again, and am already thinking about making mini personal-size pavlovas as well as meringue cookies for the holidays. Oh yes, friends, a new tool in the arsenal.

And now, the eye candy. (If you lick your screen, I won't tell anyone.)

Firstly, this is NOT how you beat eggs and get

This, however, is success in a bowl:

And here we have it: all three components, ready to top up and get devoured. And since I made this for a post-4th of July celebration at my parents', I even managed some patriotism with the strawberries and blueberries on the white plate.

Ah, a perfect forkful indeed.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Holy Meringue, Batman!

I'm working on overcoming a baking quandary, and I think I've got it figured out. I first encountered this issue when making the Italian rainbow cookies. Simply separating egg whites was challenging enough--I'm a sloppy egg-cracker. Every time I have to open an egg, I think of Audry Hepburn in Sabrina where she's in the French cooking school, and they are, well, learning how to crack an egg. Perfectly and with one hand. Whoa. I'll get there someday. Anyway, so I'm getting better at cracking and separating eggs.

But beating  them into a lovely frothy foam to turn into meringue...? That's another story. The first time I tried (for rainbow cookies), there was some latent moisture in the mixing bowl/on the mixer whisks, and I tried much longer than I should have, cursing them for not whipping up. When I eventually admitted defeat and started over, blammo: stiff peaks in like 2 minutes flat. Of course.

This time, I think my mixing bowl was the problem. I first tried in my huge aluminum bowl (perfect for making ice cream or ginormous batches of cookies). The eggs, cream of tartar, and sugar got all smooth and shiny and thick, but wouldn't come together to form peaks. Not even soft ones. After again beating for longer than I should have, I scrapped that, grabbed my trusty, ancient, plastic Tupperware bowl. Re-measured and started over with new egg whites. Again, blammo: fast, perfect meringue. Sigh. Next time I'll just start with that method. haha

My reason tonight for whipping up some eggies was to make a pavlova. I had seen this recipe on my favorite Irish cooking blog a while back, but was nervous. Cornstarch? White vinegar? I know...really basic ingredients, but still, two things not already in my arsenal. I was scared. Then, in last month's Coastal Living magazine, there was a beautiful pavlova topped with mascarpone and strawberries. Again intrigued, I scanned the recipe, and saw that this one lacked the cornstarch, so it was to be more like a traditional meringue (pavlova is a little marshmallow-y inside with a really crisp crust thanks to the vinegar and cornstarch versus a meringue which is a consistent solid texture throughout). I thought, "Hm. This one looks pretty damn simple. Why not!"

And so now here I sit. With about 20 minutes left of bake time (that's it at the left, just as I popped it into the oven). Then it has to sit in the oven for 2 agonizing hours, much like the cheesecake I recently attempted (OMG you guys...I haven't written about that on!). Which kills me. If it's an epic failure I'll never know until it's too late. Someday I'll have an oven with a window so I can peep in without opening the door and ruining the temperature. For now, though, I'll have to sit here in agony until I can open up and behold my creation. Call me Bakenstein. I hope my monster will be beautiful. And delicious.

Cheesecake. Holy. Hell. This recipe is really easy, and so you may be wondering why the hell it took me so long to make one. One word, my friends. One word, which has struck fear into my heart for years: springform. I was terrified that I'd put all this work into a delectable dessert, and then the damned pan would be its undoing. So when my dad requested a cheesecake for his Father's Day dessert, I said, "Springform, I shall vanquish thee!" I sprinted to the store, bought a pan (actually, it was a 3-pack...go big or go home!), and came home, armed with chutzpah and hardware.

Well, I sprayed the bejesus out of that 9-inch pan, crushed up the graham crackers, mixed them with butter, and made the cream cheesy heavenly filling. Dumped in said filling. Popped the cake in the oven. And panicked. When I opened the oven door (after it cooled in the oven for 6 hours...yeh, it was pure torture), it looked like a cheesecake. But what we going on under that browned crust? Was it cooked? Would it taste okay? All questions that had to wait until the next day when we'd serve it up at Mom and Dad's. Thankfully, I had sprayed the pan so well the cake actually shrunk away from the walls as it cooled and baked, so un-springing it from the pan was remarkably simple. And it tasted. Amazing. Amazing. If I had it in a white box tied with red baker's twine, you'd've thought I bought it at a Brooklyn bakery. No lie--it was that good. Ask anyone who ate it.

I hope I can pat myself on the back after Mr. Pavlova finishes. The difference here is I've never had a pavlova, so however this tastes will be my litmus test. Wish me luck, friends!