Happy Irish-Italian-American Day!

irish-Italian
[Picture of red tomatoes and a box of spaghetti above. Picture of shamrock and plaque that read “Home is where your story begins” surrounded by Celtic knots below]

I am half Irish-American and half Italian-American, more or less, give or take. On the Irish side there are a few Scottish and French ancestors, and on the Italian side we are more accurately Sicilian. This is a fairly common background for people who live near Chicago, Boston, or New York, as both of these European immigrant groups settled in these cities in large numbers. I get that it isn’t very common in the rest of the country – when I lived in Tennessee and Texas I was hard-pressed to find anyone who was either Irish-American or Italian-American, much less both.

Chicago, however, is city that dyes its river green every St. Patrick’s Day and has a bag-pipe filled parade. It is also a city that celebrates St. Joseph’s Day on March 19th with groaning tables of Italian food and the color red. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, Joseph the patron saint of Italy. It stands to reason, that in the Chicagoland area March 18th should be Irish-Italian-American Day. You know, split the difference and celebrate the best of both cultures.

My brother and I went back and forth on suggestions. Maybe of viewing of Brooklyn or Return to Me (apparently there is an Irish-Italian restaurant). I can’t remember if it is A Bronx Tale or Goodfellas that features characters who cannot be full mafiasos because they are part Irish-but I’m thinking I’m tired of Italian heritage being reduced to the mob. Maybe I’ll watch the beautifully animated Song of the Sea again.

My general feeling is that I would be best served eating Italian (and Italian-American) food while listening to Irish (and Irish-American) music. Gnocchi, lasagna, caprese salad, tiramisu, cannoli, lemon knot cookies, pizzelle, agli olio, espresso, eggplant parmesean, stuffed artichokes, pasta fagioli. Gaelic Storm, the Cheiftains, Van Morrison, Flogging Molly, U2.

The reverse would be all right too, if perhaps a tad less illustrious. I really do love a good stew, potatoes are always a favorite, and my oldest kid even likes cabbage. I can appreciate opera (Nessun Dorma sung by Pavarotti is heaven) and Frank Sinatra will always have my heart.

I could binge read, James Joyce and Dante, William Butler Yeats and Petrarch.

Check out the artwork of the Book of Kells, and the Renaissance.

Drink beer or wine.

And both places are beautiful.

You know, it is almost as if there is no wrong way to celebrate.

So for everyone out there who has both Irish and Italian heritage in America, in between Shamrock Shakes and sweets tables, there is one day that could celebrate both. Let’s do it!

Happy March 18th, everybody!

In a Land of Twelve Kinds of Cupcakes…

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For my younger son’s seventh birthday we had an experimental bake-off as one of his presents.  He is always coming up with flavor combinations he wants to try, be it a lemon peanut butter cup (which was actually amazing) to an apple orange soymilk smoothie (a lot less amazing). He has wanted to experiment with cupcake flavors forever, so when he got home from school we had a whole table of ingredients and sprinkles and frosting ready to mess around with. We whipped up basic vanilla and chocolate batter and set out all of our extracts (vanilla, almond, peppermint, orange, lemon, coconut and anise) all of the fruit in the house, nuts and candies and toffee bits and chocolate chips and marshmallows and food coloring and Teddy Grahams.

He was beside himself. The four of us, him, me, my husband and my older son would make three different experimental flavors each, and we started plotting and planning and dicing and mixing. In no particular order we ended up with…

  • Peanut butter-banana-chocolate with chocolate frosting
  • Lemon-banana-vanilla with yellow lemon-vanilla frosting
  • Maple-pecan-vanilla with cream cheese frosting
  • Chocolate-marshmallow with chocolate frosting and Teddy Grahams
  • Peppermint-chocolate-sprinkles with chocolate frosting and holiday sprinkles
  • Vanilla-strawberry with vanilla frosting and red sprinkles
  • Chocolate-Rice Krispies with purple-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Orange-chocolate-chocolate chip with orange-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Vanilla-almond-cherry jelly bean with pink-tinted vanilla frosting and a red jelly bean
  • Lemon zest-chocolate chip-vanilla with orange-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Vanilla-orange-pine nut-freeze dried strawberry with orange marmalade vanilla frosting
  • Classic chocolate with teal-tinted peppermint vanilla frosting and pastel sprinkles

The cupcake production was going full tilt…until it came grinding to a halt. In the midst of us all being excited about trying our cupcakes out for dessert that night, my husband casually mentioned that we could have friends and family test them out the next day at the huge family birthday in our little guy’s honor. That stopped him dead in his tracks. He suddenly refused to do any more – even though he had only come up with two of his three designs. Even though he had been so bouncy before. Even though the only reason we had to come up with this idea was that we knew it would make him extravagantly happy. He stopped.

We should have known. Our seven-year-old is terrified of other people’s reactions to his creative work. He has been known to throw Lego creations when they don’t work out, or to literally not move once he feels he is being watched too closely. He dances joyfully at home and messes around with a guitar, but the thought of taking lessons for either paralyzes his fun.

He sat angry on the couch as first I tried to coax out of him what was wrong, then his father took a turn. Eventually my husband was able to get him to admit that he was worried other people might hate his cupcakes. We first reassured him that people would love them, and if they didn’t it would be okay. When that was met with a skeptic scowl, we then reassured him that only our little family of four would ever taste them if that would make him happiest. My husband got him to design his last cupcake-the classic chocolate one with the elaborate topping.

 

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He is my child, for sure.

I am the one who procrastinated on writing papers until the last moment because if they turned out badly I could blame it on the time crunch. I am the one who was given an opportunity to write the introduction to an online curriculum series in college and turned it down because it made me too nervous. I am the one who decided I would rather be “well-rounded” than put all my energy into ballet. I am the one who got solos, but would then show up to voice lessons and even competitions woefully underprepared. I am the one who refused to let anyone coach me on my monologue audition I would perform just once for over twenty colleges’ theater departments.

Sometimes my fears honed my actual work into a fine point – my almost late papers taught me how to get an “A” even with limited time by using my (not-often-used) laser focus, my monologue got me admission into ten different theater departments. But then I kept shooting myself in the foot. I didn’t go into theater for fear of a lifetime of rejections. I don’t dance or sing anymore except in my own kitchen. I still write though, and I am trying for my youngest to show him that putting your creative work out there in the world is incredibly difficult, especially for him and for me, but that it really is the only way to be happy. It is the only way to be true to yourself, to be honest with who you are and what you bring to the world – putting your work out there for other people to see.

The beauty of living in a land with twelve kinds of cupcake is that you haven’t put all your hopes and dreams into just one cupcake. When you make just one, you are scared of your aunt who doesn’t care for chocolate, worried about the cousin who is allergic to nuts, terrified that another cousin will think it is too boring or that your grandpa with think it too crazy or that your grandma will say she likes it even if she really doesn’t.  When you have twelve different kinds of cupcakes, twelve experiments of flavor and texture and color it is okay that the jelly beans fell out of the bottom of one but left a delicate delicious flavor. It is okay that the peanut butter banana was too dense, it’s a great surprise that lemon and banana together is light and airy. It is more than okay to make a classic chocolate cupcake perfectly simple and beautiful decorated.

I am trying to take my own lesson from this. Right now I am grateful I am letting myself send so many cupcakes into the world, because I am less worried about each one being perfect.

I have, out there in submission-land and in no particular order…

  • A very short piece about school shooting fears
  • A very long piece about a hurricane evacuation while I taught high school
  • A medium piece about being mistreated as a patient with chronic illness
  • A rewrite of a blog piece about speech delays, open heart surgery and one-syllable words
  • A rejected piece about science fairs and art that turned into a blog post

And

  • An accepted piece about baby food, insecurity and watermelon

 

Eventually, in the sixth hour of his family party, our youngest let other people try out his cupcakes, once the big cake had been served, once the numbers of guests dwindled and he felt happy and content and comfortable with sharing his creativity. I think it went well, and I hope both he and I remember that while sharing can be scary, there are tricks to make it less so. And, ultimately, even if you are temporarily paralyzed with fear, moving forward anyways is worth it.

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Tiny Bites

big bowl pomegranate

The bowl of little red jewels caught the light, the reward for nearly a half an hour of preparation. Pomegranates require patience. Once scored you can peel back the tough outer layer and begin to use your hands as claws pulling sections apart. Submerging the whole fruit under water, you can delicately loosen the gems from their white pith moorings and let them sink gently to the bottom of the bowl. Some will fall easily without bursting. Some will require finesse, like wiggling a baby tooth loose from pink-red gums. Some arils will split under too much pressure or when they catch the edge of your nail, but there are thousands upon thousands left to pick from. Like fish eggs, we assume so many are created because inevitably so many will be lost along the way. The whole lot is drained though a fine mesh, and the work continues picking out the blemished and the burst, rescuing the ones that need the last bits of white scraped off their bottoms. Then they are ready to eat.

I worried about this Thanksgiving. My body is dysfunctional in that way that means specialist doctors with extensive waitlists, daily confusion as to what healthy can look like for me, the possibility that something is very wrong or that no one will really know what the problem is. Until the cause of that dysfunction is uncovered, most of the canon of holiday food is actively dangerous to me if I lose my inhibitions and eat too much. Candied sweet potatoes and stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, cocktails and pecan pie are only safe for me in .01 parts per million, like arsenic. Turkey and green beans are acceptable. I worried about how empty and sparse my plate would look. That that emptiness might feel so much like sadness, or grief.

I worried that all the time it takes to make all these things, the hours and hours of peeling and mashing and sautéing would feel like masochism. Like deprivation. Like resentment of the people I love for being able to enjoy these things when I couldn’t. I worried that my love of cooking was purely selfish and greedy, that I was able to indulge my gluttony by it, but didn’t enjoy serving other people no matter how much I care for them.

Worse yet, I worried that my family would be able to see the sadness and selfishness flash across my face. The twin commandments I placed on myself, to be truthful and to be loving, were going to be compromised either one way or another. I didn’t want to lie, nor did I want to pout in envy, and I was quite convinced that at least one would be unavoidable.

As I worked through the process of freeing the pomegranate arils with my oldest son, as I shopped and cooked and cooked and cooked, I was happily surprised that I didn’t feel unhappy at all. The work was as satisfying as it had always been. I felt happy to make, and make, and make without hope of more than a mouthful of each treat. Without the expectation of tangible reward. And I was absolutely relieved to find out that I could be content that my loved ones could have something I couldn’t. The frustration I anticipated in myself dissolved before it materialized.

I had a beautifully happy Thanksgiving, where I got to find out that I still love cooking, I still love my friends and family more than my gluttony, I still can enjoy life with just a taste of this or that, I can be more than my self-pity.

Persephone, the goddess of springtime, spends part of each year as the Queen of the Underworld. We have one month of winter for each pomegranate seed she ate while in the keep of Hades, her kidnapper. As I allowed myself just a few arils out of the thousands we harvested for Thanksgiving, I let the juice burst into my mouth one by one. I was happy with my few, and thought ruefully that four months of winter was more than enough. Too many pomegranate seeds and spring might never come again. But the temptation to have at least a few is too much to pass up altogether, especially when winter, in all its coziness and closeness, is pretty wonderful.

4 pomegranates

Wasting Peels

orange peels

I had the boys try candied orange peels last Christmas.

There was a recipe I had wanted to try for years (actual, literal years). I had to track down raw hazelnuts, white pepper, candied lemon and orange peel and candied citron. The result, a tooth-breaking concoction, is a story for another day. In the end, I had quite a large amount of orange, lemon and citron to figure out what to do with, because I will most likely not be trying that again.

I really tried to sell those leftover candied orange peels. I explained how people knew how to make candied fruits before there were knights. How the process to make these is involved, taking days of boiling and boiling again and soaking everything in a thick sugar syrup. How this was a way to preserve sweets before electricity and refrigeration. How back in time nothing was wasted, not even peels. How it used to be when you yourself took the time to plant and harvest, raise and slaughter, grind and bake all your own food.

The boys took one ginger bite each. “This is what people used to have for candy?” My oldest is grimacing, but trying politely to hide it.

“Well, yeah…”

“You know, I feel really bad for people back then, that this is all they had.  Especially if it was so hard to make,” he concludes.

“Mommy?” My youngest is trying to hand his peel back to me. “Do I have to finish this?”

I say what I always say in these cases, “No, honey, you never have to finish dessert.”

It is clear it is going to be up to me alone to eat these; no one else will be helping me do so. I cannot just throw them away, especially after all the weight and importance I put on them.  I’ve started to feel bad for the Medieval children who would have treasured these, those poor souls my own child pities not because they had horribly short life expectancies or lived in disease-ridden poverty.  He pities them for their lack of M & M s and Reese’s Cups. I vow, solemnly, to enjoy them before buying any more treats for myself.

That vow was broken almost immediately, and shamefully, by a McDonald’s apple pie. It was purchased as one of two for a dollar. The other pie was thrown out when I realized eating both secretly in my car would have cost me 500 calories. I tried to give the second one to my youngest in the backseat. He had the good sense to tell me, “I don’t really want any. You know, you don’t ever have to finish dessert, Mommy.”

If any fourteenth century kids ever time-travel and witness this, I am certain that they would shake me by the shoulders, maybe even smack me around a bit, and throw a very sorry, pitying glance at my son for having to live in the world in which he does.

The Opposite of Fool-Proof

lemon knots

Some things you can only learn by feel.  Making lemon knot cookies is certainly one of those.

First of all, these Italian cookies are super temperamental. You are making a cookie dough which will have to become springy and stretchy almost as if you were making pizza.  The reason the gluten needs to develop is that this will get rolled into a snake shape, knotted, baked and glazed with lemon juice and powdered sugar. There are about a million points along the way where the whole process can go terribly wrong.

The weather can be bad.  If the air is too dry, if the humidity is very low or the heat has been on too much, the dough will break apart as soon as you try to roll it into a snake.  Add more liquid to make it stretch, and you could end up with a gluey mess instead of something malleable.  Overcorrect with more flour and you have crumbs that will never come together.

So, assume that you get a good, moderately humid day to bake.  The dough comes together just right, or so you thought.  You grab a ball of dough to fill the palm of your hand.  To get the right amount, you imagine you are trying to cup as many grains of rice as you can, fingers folded over your palm so none escape.  The dough should fill that space.  As you begin rolling out the snake you realize it is just a tiny bit too powdery and it will not stick at all to the kitchen table but scoots back and forth like an air-hockey puck, refusing to roll out.  You need to wet the dough, or your hands, just a tiny bit.  Too much and the dough will smear.

You now need the right amount of pressure worked evenly along the rope so that one end isn’t thicker than the other, so there aren’t lumps.  Once I fan my fingers along its length as far as they will reach, the rope is long enough and the right diameter.  As you try to knot the rope you need to make a gentle loop and thread one end through, watching for breaks along the length of it.  If it begins to split it will pull apart from itself, like loose bark on an old tree and it is ruined.  You have one more chance to smush it together and reroll.  If that attempt fails you are done, because reworking it again will make it tough and dry and inedible.

While they bake you have to be careful not to leave them in too long.  They are supposed to be quite pale.  In fact, if they start to get golden brown you’ve most likely let them go too long.  The only solution for those cookies is a good cup of coffee or tea.  However, underdone cookies are just soggy and dense as the places where the dough knots on itself stay wet much longer then the edges.

When it does work out, you are rewarded with a light, almost-cake cookie that tastes faintly sweet and faintly of citrus and it will remind you of your Nonna if you are lucky enough to be part Sicilian.  And when relatives ask for your recipe you’ll feel proud when your father reminds them that it isn’t just the recipe, it is also the cook who matters.

Occasionally I don’t want a recipe that is fool-proof, I want a recipe that takes a good deal of attention.  I want a recipe that takes problem-solving and technique, grace and patience.  I want to get frustrated and stare sullenly into the flour-powdered air.  I want to do something that does not involve can openers, coupons, crock-pots and a timetable.  I want to take on something challenging that is totally frivolous, and ultimately rewarding.

I keep waiting for a long humid day, one that can absorb the time and effort and irritation that will surely come with these cookies-that will give me the time to let my kids mess around trying to master all the tricks you have to master to do this right.  Hopefully, at least once I’ll be able to before this summer is out.  It is worth it.

Requiem For a Dessert

Graham Crackers

Requiem for a Dessert

The toffee bars were a failure. It started well enough. The margarine and sugar had melted together the way they should. First, the yellow, translucent, buttery top laid over and soaked the brown sugar. The grains of sugar mounded and washed away, a golden beach as I swirled the melted margarine around the pot in gentle waves. Then the bubbles started rising from the bottom of the pot, struggling one at a time through the beach, fighting to reach the surface, popping inches away from each other in slow succession. Then suddenly there was a flurry of bubbles, the whole surface covered with layers, bubbles climbing on top of each other and slipping back down and climbing again before releasing. The surface tension was high as the concoction got stickier. The toffee coated the back of my wooden spoon. It looked right.

I poured the sugar-butter over little graham cracker rectangles and immediately knew something was wrong. Instead of gliding over the surface of the crackers and then settling in, it sank fast, soaking it all. It looked mushy and bloated like Cheerios left in milk half a morning before being cleared away. I sprinkled pecans over the top, already worried that I had wasted them. I put the tray in the oven. It smelled right.

What should have come out of the oven was a sheet of glossy rectangles, the toffee mixture still bubbling around the edges. I should have been able to let it cool for a few moments and then been able to use a spatula to slide them off the cookie sheet. I would have had to stretch the first few apart because they would have still been too warm, and they would have gotten little taffy tendrils off their edges. As I worked to the back, those toffee bars would have cracked apart cleanly. If I had waited any longer, I would have shattered the last crackers into jagged shards because they sat too long. I would have shoved those broken bits in my mouth to test the batch. A half an hour after that I would have dipped them halfway in chocolate. Eventually, they would have made it to the freezer, and I was going to steal one in the morning as an unhealthy breakfast and maybe a few more after the kids were in bed.

Instead they came out matte. Soggy. The spatula shoved them around without being able to lift them. I pinched a bit to taste. It had the texture of old, badly made pancakes saturated with unremarkable bland sweetness.

This is a eulogy for the toffee bars as they used to be, when I could make them with real butter, before I knew that dairy made pain travel up and down my arms and creep behind my right eye. I’ve used soy cream cheese and ground nuts, Fleischman’s unsalted margarine, vegetable oil and coconut milk to give back to myself those things I’ve had to give up. I’ve made milkshakes, pumpkin pie, lemon knots, carrot cake, chocolate tarts, sugar cookies, cherry cobblers. But something about the chemical properties here didn’t work out. I’m at a loss for how this simple recipe failed so badly.

Some things you can’t replace. Some things are lost, no matter how much you wish that wasn’t so. Goodbye, toffee bars. The best I can do for you now is to remember you, fondly and well.