December 10, 2012

An afternoon at the ballet

The holiday season is already in full swing and I find myself with too little time and so much to do. Between working at the restaurant, trying to see friends and family, baking, taking care of a very active toddler and trying to find some time to write, it's no wonder the holidays are a stressful time of year.  But this weekend was also packed with fun: a home tour in my awesome little neighborhood with friends last night and then today, an afternoon to remember.

I received a very sweet gift from my in-laws of two tickets to see The Nutcracker ballet for me and June. I'm not sure if they knew how special this is to me. One of my fondest holiday memories (and there are lots of them as my family loved Christmas) is of going to see this traditional holiday ballet with my mom every year at Christmastime. We would get dressed up (usually in matching outfits) and I would be so excited to be going somewhere with my pretty mom for the day. My mom was a big proponent of dance and culture in our lives and also loved Christmas. I don't remember, but it must have been in college when I stopped going to see the Nutcracker every year. Still whenever I hear that familiar music, I think of my mom.

Now that I have a little girl there is nothing I look forward to more than carrying on these traditions with her. June has been in a ballet phase for some time now. She loves ballerinas and dancing and has three or four tutus that she rotates through. Almost every night after dinner she tells her daddy to play his keyboard and she puts on a tutu or her pink "princess dress" and twirls around the living room for us. "Mommy, I'm dancing so beautifully," she said one night. I was surprised to hear her say that but then remembered that she loves to watch the show Angelina Ballerina -- a little British mouse who loves to dance. That may be why she has been saying things with a British accent lately, like when I ask her if she has to go potty, "Not at all," or if she wants a snack, "Of course I do."

In any case, it's clear that dancing is in her blood (I am secretly cheering and so is my mom) and she was eagerly awaiting this outing to the ballet for the last week or so. She took an earlier nap than usual since we were going to the 2:00 show and when she woke up her cheeks were red and she could hardly contain her excitement. I told her we'd be putting on our pretty clothes (my girl also loves to dress up) and I dressed her in a white sweater dress that my dad gave her for Christmas last year. She looked so cute.

On the way there she was full of questions: "Where is the Nutcracker?" "Are all these cars going to the Nutcracker too?"  The first thing we did was take a photo with the 'real' ballerina. June was a bit hesitant to stand next to her and looks a little scared in the photo, but those girls look a bit like aliens from close up so I can't really blame her.

We found our seats which I was relieved to see were close enough that she could see everything, upping our chances of being able to stay for the whole performance. When it started she immediately asked me where the music was coming from and it was hard for her to understand that the orchestra was playing live but the musicians were under the stage so we couldn't see them. Then she asked me where the "real ballerinas" were. The ballet is set in the 19th century and in the first scene the dancers had on regular clothes instead of tutus, which threw her off. Also, why are there a bunch of little boys and girls dressed like mice running around? She seemed confused.

But enter the Snow Queen and then later, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and all of the other wonderful costumes and scenery in the Land of Sweets and her mind was put at ease that I hadn't in fact lied about this being "ballet." She smiled and oohed and seemed really enthralled --at least for the first act. She got a little tired and squirmy by the end of the second act but was a trooper and we didn't even have to leave early.

It was a great day. I felt closer to my mom doing that with June. It is so hard not to have her here, especially at this time of year and especially now that I have a child of my own. I want to give June the same kinds of memories that I have of my mom. She is old enough to be excited about Christmas this year and I am so excited to be starting my own traditions with her just like I had with my mom. Last week we had fun decorating the Christmas tree and she loves the little tree I gave her for her room with the tiny little ornaments that used to be on my little tree in my room as a child. We baked cookies together last week and will do more of that in the coming weeks. And now, we have our little afternoon at the ballet. This is what the holidays are all about.

October 23, 2012

If only Fall could last forever

Autumn has come in with a bang and I could not be happier. It's my favorite time of year here. It's funny how the simple and predictable change of seasons can have such a huge effect on my state of mind. When you live in the South you look forward to the fall, if only because it means the heat lets up and the mosquitoes die off. But add to that the beautiful colors that take over the sky and all the leaves turning red, orange, gold and yellow and, after months of unrelenting heat and humidity and non-stop complaining from me-- it reminds me of why it's nice to live in a place like this. Plus, fall is just my favorite season for many reasons. Baking in fall is the best; I love using apples and pears, walnuts and pumpkins. I love Halloween (and it's about to get even better now that June is going to understand it all). And I love the months leading up to the holidays because it gives me something to look forward to and plan. All the eating and baking and gathering with family and friends just makes me happy. Happier than I am in summer, and more energetic. Plus, there has been so much going on around here lately...

Buffalo Valley Farm, the site of a benefit farm dinner I participated in a few weeks ago.

A wagon ride to the fall fest at the East Nashville farmer's market

Sevier lake at Shelby Park, near our house, which celebrated 100 years recently

Smelling the lavender in bloom all over the neighborhood

Afternoon stroll through the leaves

I recently stopped working the night shifts at the restaurant and am only working in the kitchen. This is good for my mental state, bad for my pocketbook. But the trade-off is worth it to me right now. I love spending time with my family and June is in a particularly fun stage. She's extra verbal and funny and just full of life and fun to be around, despite the challenges of being a toddler.

We took June on her first camping trip last weekend, the first weekend I did not have to work a Sat. night since the beginning of August. It was so nice to be able to take off on Sat. morning and not return until Sunday afternoon. We went out to my in-laws' property in Hickman County which is in the woods, surrounded by the trees in full fall glory and it was a great time to be out there. We hiked in the woods, cooked a nice dinner (they have a cabin), drank wine, made s'mores and sat around the fire and attempted to sleep in a tent.

I say attempted because we set up the tent close to the house just in case we needed an exit. June had been looking forward to the trip all week--she nearly freaked when her daddy came home with a new, pink sleeping bag for her and new 5-person tent for us on Friday. But after reading books by flashlight and jumping around inside the tent, growing increasingly tired, she finally just said "Can we go inside now and go to bed?" I was fine since the temperature had dipped into the 40s and even with my down sleeping bag, I was still chilly. But Daniel was disappointed. In general I love sleeping outdoors and camping, but since having a baby sleep has become a precious commodity and I need all I can get.

Eating a s'more for the first time

We drove home the next day with one tired child, a whooped dog who had the best weekend she'd had in a long time (maybe since June's arrival on the scene) and two rested parents. We vowed to do that again soon.

Now I'm getting ready for a much-anticipated visit from my dad (who is "Papa" to June) and we are excited to spend some time with him. It will be a busy and fun weekend with two Halloween parties, other fall events around town, dinner plans out at the restaurant and hopefully some continued beautiful fall weather.

Tomorrow night at the restaurant we have our first Chef's table - a 3-course special dinner off the menu, reservations only and it's sure to be booked. The family style menu will feature fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans, gravy, turnip greens and more. And I'm making a special dessert:

Apple Brown Betty with bourbon whipped cream. I'll be peeling, coring and cutting apples all morning but it should be fun.

And on Thursday I'm hosting a Halloween cookie decorating party for my mom's club friends. I need to make all the sugar cookies first so the kids just have to decorate them. When will I do this??


And one day if I ever have time I'm going to make this maple-apple upside down cake. Doesn't it just look so perfect for a late afternoon snack with a cup of coffee?

Fall could go on forever as far as I'm concerned.

October 8, 2012

the messiness of life in a restaurant kitchen

The Buddha said that we are never separated from enlightenment. Even at the times we feel most stuck, we are never alienated from the awakened state. This is a revolutionary assertion. Even ordinary people like us with hang-ups and confusion have this mind of enlightenment called bodhichitta. The openness and warmth of bodhichitta is in fact our true nature and condition. Even when our neurosis feels far more basic than our wisdom, even when we're feeling most confused and hopeless, bodhichitta—like the open sky—is always here, undiminished by the clouds that temporarily cover it.
                                                     Bodhichitta: The Excellence of Awakened Heart, by

photo courtesy

September 21, 2012

Am I a control freak?

chocolate bread pudding with pears and maple whipped cream

Life's been a bit nuts lately, which explains the month-long absence from the blog. I recently read this funny article by one of my favorite writers, Tracy Moore, in which she argued that it's a myth that you lose your identity when you become a parent. What you lose is precisely your time. That's it. The time just goes out the window when you are the parents of a young child. Somehow, the things you used to do in your free time, things you loved and that formed your identity and made you who you are become the very things you no longer have time for. For me, those things are riding my road bike, listening to and discovering new music, reading, traveling and entertaining.

To say that it's been hard keeping up a blog is an understatement. I don't have time to cook much of anything lately, and I don't have time to write about it even if I did. But let's stop complaining, shall we? And move on to what I have been doing: work and June.

On the June front, things have been great, if trying at times. My girl certainly has a strong and independent personality (wonder where she got that?) and has no problems letting us know what she wants and doesn't want. Her verbal abilities and ease with expressing herself never cease to amaze us. The other day she asked me "what's a sacrifice?" because she'd heard me use the word in conversation. Then on Sunday she told me quite clearly: "Mom, I'm so happy you're home. I love the weekends." My heart melted.

And she recently decided that, despite the false start several months ago and then her stubbornness about the whole thing, she is in fact ready to get out of diapers. She pulled her pants down and squatted at the playground the other day after she'd seen her friend go pee in the bushes. That must have made an impression because she rode all the way home in her wagon diaper-free (but with pants on) and when we got home she proceeded to go potty all by herself. She earned two stickers on her sticker chart and now we're on a roll. (I'll spare you the details). But it is an accomplishment --for both of us. For her, it means she's that much closer to wearing her 'big-girl underpants' like her potty-trained older friends, and for me, it means I soon will not have to wash diapers or fight with her to change them all day long. This is huge. But it also means my little girl is growing up.

At work I've made some discoveries, some mistakes and some bread pudding. A lot of bread pudding. If there's one thing I've learned it's that people love them some custardy, baked bread in this town. They also love anything fried and not that healthy. Which is why my two favorite desserts on the menu right now have been under-selling (the apple crostata and the zucchini cake) in favor of the two more decadent desserts: the chocolate pot de creme and the ricotta doughnuts.

I knew that trying to do things like seasonal fruit-filled, rustic pastry (the crostata) and unusual flavors that combine savory and sweet, citrus and spice (like the cake) might be a challenge. But I will persevere. I am planning to replace the zucchini cake (which people love when they go out on a limb and try it) with something pumpkin for fall. And I am hanging on to the crostata for now (I've switched from peaches to apples), hoping I can still make people love it. I am getting tired of the old pot of chocolate, but people seem to like it and I've gotten pretty good at making it now.
Speaking of which, I made a double batch of them one day like I usually do (that's over 40 jars) and for some reason I'll never know, they didn't set up properly after hours of chilling. Maybe my egg yolk count was off, maybe I took it off the heat too soon, who knows? But when I went to check on it before leaving for the day, it was still in liquid form, not the pudding -like consistency I was looking for. So the next day I was forced to come in on my day off and fix the problem. I wasn't about to throw out all that good chocolate and cream. First I tried pouring them all back into a pot and re-heating it, with a few extra egg yolks thrown in. I'd done some research and a few people claimed it worked. It did not work.

So I decided to try my first attempt at bread pudding. It was already halfway there: melted chocolate, heavy cream and eggs. I poured it over stale bread that I'd cut up and let it sit for 30 minutes. I poured that into ramekins and baked them for an hour. Then I made a peacan-bourbon-caramel sauce and served it warm with the sauce spooned over the top.

 It was a big hit. And I was pleased with myself for taking a mistake and turning it into something even better. I also learned I have to test my pudding  for consistency every time by putting a spoonful on a plate and into the fridge before pouring the whole batch into jars. If, after a few minutes, it doesn't move when the plate is tilted, it's good to go. If not, go back on the heat immediately. With pot de crème, like any custard, it involves a delicate balance between enough heat to thicken (the yolks are the only thickening agent), but not too much or the chocolate will scald. This is why such things can't just be cranked out haphazardly and quickly. They take some amount of focus and patience. This is not for everyone. And it's why I like making desserts. I like the concentration and the figuring out what went wrong and the satisfaction when something finicky turns out great.

I hope I can continue to be somewhat of a perfectionist with my product. I may drive the guy crazy whose job it is to plate my desserts. He may tune me out every time I tell him something that seems unimportant or obvious. I'm not trying to make his life harder. I'm just trying to ensure that the work I do each day to make a quality product is followed through with some care and attention at the back end just before the dessert makes it out to the table.

If the whipped cream is two days old it won't taste right. If the cake has not been sprinkled with powdered sugar before going out, it will look unfinished. And if the bread pudding is too hot you won't taste the different flavors. I have been struggling a bit with trying not to be too much of a control freak. But then I also think that perfectionism produces a great product and it's better to be a little bit of a freak when it comes to making things great. Someone has to care about dessert. After all, it's the last impression a diner has of the whole experience that preceded it. It shouldn't be treated as just an afterthought.

August 21, 2012

The pride and perils of returning to work

So I started a new job a couple of weeks ago and despite that fact that it's kicking my butt, I am really happy.

If you know me, you know that I have had a few other careers in my life (academic, teacher, interpreter, sales and marketing person, freelance writer) but the one I probably enjoyed the most was baker. When the career I spent way too many years in school preparing for crashed and burned (...), I turned to something I loved to make myself feel better and that's when a minor interest turned into a full-fledged passion. I spent a year in the kitchen of a well-known local restaurant assisting the pastry chef and learned more than any food network show or food magazine I devoured could ever teach me. At the time I thought it was a fun way to dip my toe in the water of an industry I'd always been interested in while learning if it was something I really wanted to do.

After that year, life took me in other directions for a while and five years after starting my pastry apprenticeship with my good friend Tom, here I am in my first pastry chef job. I'm not sure why they gave me the job, except that I have a lot of heart and passion for food and my employers must have seen something in me they recognized. I may not have all the experience or qualifications another person fresh out of culinary school or with years of cooking professionally behind her would have, but I'll always try my hardest and take pride in what I do and make. And it seems to be appreciated. Besides, if I were better at choosing jobs based not on how they make me feel but on unimportant details like how lucrative or practical they are, I wouldn't be me. Nevertheless, I am really happy to have this opportunity.

Some highlights of my first couple of weeks in the kitchen of an exciting new restaurant include almost crying on the day before opening when I realized what I had gotten myself into and in that same moment realizing if I ever cried as the only woman in a kitchen full of foul-mouthed male cooks, they'd eat me alive. I got through that really tough day and made enough progress to eventually feel like I could do the job.

Then, after realizing one of my recipes was great for making one at a time (at home), but way too labor-intensive for a restaurant, and yet it was on the menu and they were already printed--I switched gears and found a great substitute that is much easier for large-batch cooking and seems to be just as well liked. Problem solved.

the chocolate pie that nearly killed me

In addition to working a few days a week making the restaurant's desserts, I also got myself into working as a server a couple of nights to 1) pay the bills and 2) have some fun. I have already discovered I am too old and crusty and I would much rather be slaving away in the back of the house  listening to loud 80s music and working alongside my fellow masochists than dealing with customers and perky 23-year-old fellow servers. But I will persevere waiting tables for as long as I can take it and try to remember the real reason I am there. At least I can totally sell the desserts.

zucchini-olive oil cake with lemon glaze, cooling

Perhaps the biggest challenge of the last few weeks for me has been making the transition to going back to work after being a stay-at-home-mom for the last two years. I could write many paragraphs on this subject, but this is a food blog not a mommy blog, so I'll spare you. What I will say is that sometimes I look at my daughter's face when I have to leave and go to work and my heart sinks and I feel that work is not all it's cracked up to be. And other times, I feel proud that I'm doing something that's hard and rewarding and also helping our family's finances at the same time and I want to set that example for my little girl so she knows that her options are many. For us right now it's all about making this transition as carefully and easily as possible and trying to find the balance of work and life that is right for us.
June on her first day back at "school"

When I came home last Sat. night at 11:30 pm and my husband was asleep on the couch while my $200 All-Clad soup pot (that had an hour or so earlier contained water in it for pasta), boiled away to nothing and were it not such a stellar piece of equipment might have burned the house down, I thought that maybe things had gotten out of balance. After all, the man has been taking on more parenting duties (which, believe me, is every bit as hard if not harder than working) and still has a physically demanding full-time job. After scolding him for his carelessness I had to thank him for his thoughtfulness: he was just trying to have dinner ready for me when I got home from work.

what keeps me going...
In closing, I'm going to steal the Bukowski quote that a friend who is a successful small-business owner and mom used when asked by an interviewer what her fears were: "Find what you love and let it kill you." Well, I may not have lighted on my life's most important work with this new job, but at least I'm headed in the right direction. I am so lucky to have such a supportive husband and sweet, loving, secure and well-adjusted daughter. If we can manage to not burn the house down, I think we'll all survive.

July 31, 2012

In praise of figs

I feel like I hit the jackpot this summer. Not the kind of jackpot that would make me rich, but I honestly think I am just as happy, if not more, with the one I've won: I've come into a windfall of figs. And not only are they gorgeous and exotic, delicious and hard to come by, but they happen to be my favorite fruit to cook and bake with.

We bought a rental property --a major fixer-upper--one year ago and we've been rehab-ing it all year so we could rent it for extra income. It was a huge project and D. has worked so hard and it is finally (almost) complete. It will all be worth it eventually, when we start to recoup our investment in the form of rent. But for now, I feel like we've gotten the biggest return on our investment in the form of sweet, juicy figs. You see, the property has two huge, old fig trees on it --so big their thick roots are almost fused together and the canopy reaches into the sky and down to the ground, laden with plump, juicy figs, ripe for the picking.

Last year we owned the property but had not started working on it in earnest when the figs started coming in. On top of that, the house had been empty for several years prior and in much need of some attention. The day I went over to harvest all the figs I was met with an empty tree--someone had brought in equipment overnight and harvested every single one of them. Thieves of the worst kind! So this year not only do we have renters in one of the units already, but I put up a no trespassing sign and placed this intimidating security guard on duty.

We have been harvesting them almost every day for over a week now. There are more than we can pick with only a ladder to get to the top of the tree. But it's been so much fun to go over there with June and show her how good just-picked fruit can be. We pick and eat until our grocery bags are full or the mosquitoes start to eat us alive, whichever comes first. Then I get to work on canning, freezing, baking and otherwise trying to preserve these beauties as best I can.

I have an Italian friend, Elisabetta, who is from Rome and I've known her for 15 years. Her mom, Ignazia Mancini is one of my culinary inspirations and makes the most delicious "marmellata di fichi" (fig jam) I've ever tasted (in Italy fig trees grow rampantly throughout the Southern regions).  She always gives me some of her jam when I go visit her and it's been a while since I've had that tasty treat in my fridge. Last summer, upon purchasing the property and discovering the figs, I asked Betty for her mom's recipe. This summer I finally got the chance to make it. It is a wonderful combination of figs with a little dark cocoa thrown in to give it that extra depth of flavor and dark color. (Recipe below).

I've made two batches so far and gave some away to friends and stashed a couple of jars for us for the winter.

Last weekend I made a beautiful fig tart that I plan on making for the open house at Lockeland Table next Monday night. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in for some yummy apps and a bite-sized version of this super-local (as in 14th street y'all) fresh fruit tart.

And for a dinner party on Sunday with friends, I stuffed fresh figs with bits of smoky bleu cheese and drizzled them with honey and a sprinkle of sea salt. To.die.for.

Call me crazy, but I can't get enough of this amazing fruit! If you know of any other great fig recipes or ideas, please send them my way. I've even tried freezing some by laying them on a baking sheet to harden and then packing them into a plastic freezer bag and sucking out all the air with a straw. I've never tried freezing fruit, but it will be interesting to see what shape they're in when I pull them out in January or February for a little taste of summer.

Marmellata di fichi (recipe courtesy of Ignazia Mancini) 

about 1.5 lbs of figs (750 grams)
1 and a 1/2 cups of sugar
1/4 cup of dark, unsweetened cocoa powder
juice of half a lemon (optional)

Wash and remove the stems of the figs then put in a large stockpot on med. heat and cook, stirring frequently so they don't burn, for about 30-45 min.  Remove them to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Put back into the pot and add the sugar. Cook on low, stirring occasionally, until thickened and the consistency of jam (about 45-1 hour). Add the cocoa powder and lemon juice (if desired--I always add a bit of citrus to any jam to bring out the flavor of the fruit and add acidity) and stir until blended. Turn off the heat and prepare your jars according to most canning recipes. Fill jars and process using the boiling water method for at least 15 min. Place on a towel to cool and let the tops seal. If any do not seal, place in the fridge and eat within two weeks. Processed jars will be good for at least one year.

July 20, 2012

OMG a new beginning!

Connor and June, buds  *shout out to Kate and Ashley and their awesome store, Oldmadegood for letting me use their sign.

Some things I know about myself are 1) I love a good challenge. 2) I like to change careers (often). And 3) I need to be surrounded by people whom I esteem and respect. If the above things are not true for me, we are dead in the water.

This little list is relevant because I am happy to announce I will be starting a new job as the pastry chef at Lockeland Table, the neighborhood restaurant just a few blocks from my house that is eagerly anticipated by East Nashville and beyond. This job will get me back in a kitchen doing something I love to do, which is baking. I think it will be a good fit for me because the backbone of the restaurant's philosophy is local, seasonal and unpretentious food in a neighborhood setting open to all. It will be a family-run business that will also appeal to families, as the partners in this venture are long-time colleagues from Eastland Cafe (another great East Nashville mainstay) and have young children of their own. I believe they'll take that experience of caring for and feeding their own families and translate it to feeding the neighborhood. What better place for me to be?

The desserts I would love to make are ones in which seasonal fruit features prominently, things like handmade tarts, pies, gelato and other simple Italian-inspired baked goods that let the ingredients speak for themselves. I am super excited to be embarking on this new professional phase for myself, and to play a small part of Chef Hal's and Cara's dream.

Here is a rustic peach and blueberry crostata that I hope will be featured on the opening, late-summer menu. As long as peaches are still available, I'm making this. It is so simple served room temperature, alongside a scoop of vanilla bean gelato and cup of good, strong coffee. It's my favorite breakfast actually (minus the gelato).

And this zucchini-olive oil cake with lemon glaze I tested out recently (from Babbo's Gina de Palma's cookbook), and it was loved by all who tried it. It's moist without being too rich but with complex flavors of olive oil mixed with lemon and spices. It would be a great late summer-early Fall dessert when zucchinis are plentiful.

Last Sunday I attended a charity dinner at the Hermitage Hotel benefiting the national organization Share Our Strength.  They work to end childhood hunger and one of their big fundraisers is a traveling dinner / live auction with local and regional chefs where patrons bid lots of money for, among other things, a chance to have Tandy Wilson or Tyler Brown cook dinner for 12 in the winner's home. My favorite dishes were Brown's first course of heirloom beets, green olive vinaigrette, biscuit crumble and Cruze Dairy ricotta salata; and the "community plate" --a collaboration of all the chefs (chef Hal was one of them) that really spoke volumes about the honest, meaty, Southern-inspired and fresh food these chefs are serving now.

 Then, Steven Satterfield of Miller Union in Atlanta (where I recently enjoyed a fabulous farm-to-table dinner with friends) made this blackberry cobbler with Cruze buttermilk ice cream. Love that miniature skillet, but the blackberries made all the guests' teeth purple! (note to self: look up the science behind this and find out if there is anything to be done about it).

It has been a fruit-filled and fruitful summer for me. And as the temperatures and the oppressive humidity rise alongside each other, making us all move a little slower and long for the crisp, cool days of fall, I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead. For me, August always brings change and a new beginning and this one is no exception.