Monday, February 22, 2010

Bundt Cake Season - The Beginning

I'm not sure exactly why it came up, but a couple of years ago, while visiting with the Main Squeeze's relatives, it was mentioned how, years ago (I think it was about 30) the Main Squeeze's uncle was aghast at the cost of his wife's recent purchase: a bundt pan. But over time, he had come to see the error of his ways, because he had enjoyed so many delicious cakes from that very pan. It turned out to be money well spent.

This conversation got me to thinking. You see, I do not have a particularly strong sweet tooth. ( I don't dislike sweet things, but they are not my weakness.) I did not grow up in a home where we had dessert regularly, nor were baked goods usually to be found. They were an occasional item, and therefore a special treat. And I have, in the past, found iced cakes to be too sweet. Now, that could very well be due to too many grocery store bakery cakes, which I find too sweet--the icing is so sweet, it makes the roof of my mouth itch-- and too boring and so not worth the calories. (I might have even said, on occasion, that I didn't really like cake.) But bundt cakes, on the other hand, are usually not cloyingly sweet. So the mention of the bundt pan set off this light bulb, "Hey, I like bundt cakes. They're not too sweet. And they're kind of retro. I should get a bundt pan." What made this idea especially perfect, is that I had some graduation money from the aforementioned aunt and uncle and I had been waiting for the right thing to spend it on, and a bundt pan would definitely fit that bill.

I had actually seen the bundt pan I wanted at the fancy kitchen store in town probably a year before I bought it. It caught my eye because it was so lovely. Initially, I couldn't rationalize buying an expensive bundt pan, since I'm not a big baker (this was before the aunt-uncle-bundt-pan-light-bulb moment.) Then, after I decided getting a bundt pan was a good idea, I wavered on getting the specific one that I wanted, because it's a ten-cup pan, and most recipes are for a twelve-cup pan. Eventually, I just said screw it, I'm getting the fancy bundt pan that I want and we'll see how the cakes work out.

So, two Novembers ago, graduation cash in hand, I went to the fancy kitchen store and bought the fancy bundt pan I had been coveting. (This is it, in case you are wondering. I had forgotten it's the Bavarian Bundt Pan, which is hilarious and fitting, since my heritage is predominately German.)

My first bundt cake was made for Thanksgiving, which we were celebrating with the Main Squeeze's family that year. (A funny aside, the Main Squeeze was not terribly pleased that I was bringing this bundt cake to Thanksgiving, because "Thanksgiving is pie's holiday," and this cake was clearly encroaching on pie's big day.) I wanted to show the Main Squeeze's aunt and uncle what I had used the graduation money for, so in spite of a certain person's protestations, I brought a bundt cake to Thanksgiving.

And thus began, what would turn out to be, the first Bundt Cake Season.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fifth Review: The Best American Short Stories 2009 edited by Alice Sebold

I was first introduced to The Best American Short Stories series in the winter of 1999. My roommate at the time had gotten a copy of the 1998 BASS for Christmas and had left it out in the living room. So of course, I picked it up and started reading it. That one was edited by Garrison Keillor and I loved it. I have been asking for them for Christmas every year since then.

I have not loved all of them equally over the years, and it's hard to know if that's simply a fact of the types of stories which the series editor and the guest editor had to choose from in a given year, or if it's more of a reflection of the guest editor's taste. I've always assumed it is more of the latter. Which is why, for example, I was surprised that the edition that Amy Tan edited (1999) is not a favorite, because I love Amy Tan's writing. (In fact, now that I think about it, I'm not sure why her A Hundred Secret Senses isn't on my list of recommended books. Also, where the hell is my copy of that book?).

Two BASS that do stand out for me, are the aforementioned 1998, as well as, 2006 editions. Of course, my love of those particular editions could easily be due to issues completely unrelated to the stories included in those books. Obviously, 1998 was the first in the series that I read, and therefore, as my introduction, would have a special place in my heart. As for 2006, I started that one while on a Caribbean island (St. Kitts, to be exact) in the middle of January, after I had finally finished the most important incomplete from my grad program. I very, very clearly remember that experience of waking up before everyone else and sitting on the deck, in gloriously warm weather, enjoying a mind-bogglingly beautiful view, and reading that short story collection.

The short explanation of how these stories are collected is that the series editor, Heidi Pitlor, reads thousands of short stories that have been published in various magazines over the previous year and whittles them down to a more reasonable number (in this case, 120) for the guest editor--this year it was Alice Sebold--to read through and select the top 20. Clearly, subjectivity abounds--but that's one of the things that I like about this collection, and why I think the guest editor truly does put his or her stamp on the final collection. The guest editor is always an author. (I'll be honest, every year, when I crack open my latest copy, I always imagine how fun--and ridiculously challenging--the guest editor's job is. I secretly covet it.)

A short story collection, especially when it doesn't come from a single author, is hard to review as a whole. That being said, I enjoyed this year's collection and there were several stories that particularly stood out for me.

Steve De Jarnatt's story, Rubiaux Rising, about a drug-addicted Gulf War vet, trapped in the attic during the rising waters of Hurricane Katrina is beautifully powerful. Eleanor Henderson's The Farms is a quiet contemplation of race in modern-day America. Sagittarius by Greg Hrbek is one of those stories you just have to go with, as it pulls a bit of what would normally be found in a fantasy novel into an everyday situation. Jill McCorkle's Magic Words is the sort of story that I contemplate not finishing, because of that pit of dread in my stomach, but I have to see it to the end, because I need to know how it all turns out. Modulation by Richard Powers is about music and technology and earworms (of the musical, rather than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, variety) and it's hard to describe beyond that. Alex Rose's Ostacon provides a bittersweet window into Alzheimer's, from the perspective of the sufferer. And The Peripatetic Coffin by Ethan Rutherford is about the Confederate submarine, the H. L. Hunley, used in the Civil War and it's third crew.

I really don't want to give much more information on the stories than that, because, well, they're short, and any more information will give too much away.

As I said, these were the ones that stood out for me, though all the stories in the collection are strong (even the ones that weren't really my cup of tea.) I definitely recommend the collection. If you aren't in the habit of reading short stories, this is a great place to start.

One of the things that I appreciate about a short story is how much can be conveyed in such a minimum number of pages. I deeply love novels; however, a short story, when done well, is a simple thing of beauty. I enjoy knowing that at least once a year, I will immerse myself in a collection of well-written short stories.

A short story collection, especially one like this with a variety of authors, is kind of like a mix tape. You move from one story to the next, not knowing what to expect, finding yourself going from one very different topic to another, occasionally finding two stories that have some subject or theme in common, but mostly just going along for the ride and enjoying some excellent writing.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Vegetarian Scrapple

If you are from the Mid-Atlantic region, you should be familiar with Scrapple. For the uninitiated, scapple is simply leftover pork bits combined with cornmeal and seasonings. It's formed into a block and then sliced and pan fried until crispy and brown on the outside. It's delicious. But for those who did not grow up eating it, I guess it can be kind of scary. Personally, I think that if you eat sausage, you have no business being skeeved out by scrapple.

Anyway, I'm originally from Maryland and grew up eating and loving scrapple. The thing is, I became a vegetarian* about 20 years ago, so no more scrapple for me. I became a vegetarian, because I could no longer rationalize eating animals (I'm a huge sap), not because I didn't think they were tasty. So, I'm one of those vegs who is happy to try out fake meat products. I love Morning Star Farm's veggie links, patties and bacon. They are a key part of my weekend breakfasts.

I will also be the first one to tell you that it helps to have distance from the real deal to appreciate the fake versions. If you can clearly remember what bacon tasted like, then the fake stuff is so not going to cut it. (That being said, fake sausages can fly for meat eaters, because it's often about the seasonings, rather than the actual meat ingredients).

Anyway, a few years ago, the Main Squeeze got me a cookbook, Ethnic Vegetarian, for Christmas. The focus of the book is recipes (traditional and modern) from Africa, America, and the Caribbean. It's divided up into sections: African recipes, Caribbean recipes, African-American recipes, and Southern recipes. As soon as I saw the recipe for vegetarian scrapple, I was intrigued and have been meaning to make it ever since. The thing is, it's one of those recipes which you have to make a day in advance, and well, for me, that's often too much planning.

Finally, this past weekend, I decided to go for it. On Sunday, I bought the ingredients we didn't already have and then whipped it up. As I mentioned, it's been awhile since I've had scrapple, so the ingredient list did not raise any red flags--especially because you never know how separate ingredients may come together to form an entirely different whole. The ingredients for the veggie scrapple (as best as I can remember them) are: onion, garlic, celery, bell pepper, black-eyed peas, corn meal, oatmeal, salt, pepper, cayenne, onion powder and vegetable stock.

Some things that should have tipped me off that this recipe was not really going to resemble the original in flavor: A) bell pepper, B) cayenne pepper, C) the fact that she recommends it as part of supper (um, scrapple is definitely a breakfast/brunch kind of food), and D) the fact that this recipe was in her Southern food section. Scrapple is not a southern food. It may be found there--I don't know, I haven't spent much time in the South--but it originated in Pennsylvania and it was created by German immigrants there. (There is debate over whether it started with Pennsylvania Dutch (Amish) or just regular German immigrants.)

The veggies and spices are sauteed until the vegetables are soft, then the beans & spices are added and cooked for five minutes, and then the other ingredients are added Finally, everything is poured into a buttered loaf pan. The scrapple is baked for 45 minutes--which gives the corn meal and oatmeal a chance to absorb the broth. You refrigerate it for four hours or overnight (I did overnight) and then slice it and pan fry it.

I'm not sure if it's because I used steel-cut, Irish style oats (rather than the traditional rolled kind)--I doubt it--but the cornmeal/oatmeal portion settled on the bottom, while the veggies were mostly on the top. The cornmeal part did have the right consistency, but the flavor was totally off. This scrapple was far too savory--the cayenne and red peppers were all wrong. I could see how the celery might blend in a different context, and if you don't have meat, then onion and garlic could be important for flavor. But yeah, this combination was never going to have that special scrapple flavor.

All in all, I'd have to rate this as a disappointment. The "scrapple" was tasty, as long as you weren't actually expecting it to taste anything like scrapple!

I may or may not try out other veggie scrapple recipes, but I am very interested to try Vrapple a vegetarian version that won second place at ScrappleFest 2009. I may just overlook the fact that it costs $10. A girl's gotta get her scrapple fix somehow.

*And by vegetarian, I mean that I sometimes eat seafood. Don't you judge me!

It's time to expand, don't you think?

A quick note about the whole reading thing, and then on to other things. I swear I am still reading, but clearly, I got a bit sidetracked, because I have been reading the same book for-fucking-ever! I'm on my last story from the The Best American Short Stories 2009, so I should have a new review up soon. (And yes, I have no idea when I'm going to cram in enough books to get caught up...)

Anyway, I thought that perhaps I should take advantage of this blog thing to post on other things and not just books--especially since those posts are far too few and far between. So, we'll see what kind of odds and ends end up here.

I think adventures in cooking should be one of those, so I'm going to post about my recent vegetarian scrapple attempt. It's not like I do a lot of adventuresome cooking, but it is Bundt Cake Season, so those should be good fodder for the the food posts.

And if I finally get around to deconstructing the t-shirts for which I have plans, that has possibilities for posts as well.

So yeah, I think it's time to break out a few more subjects for this blog. We'll see what happens.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I do, in fact, have a picture of the baboon-faced gourd and just as soon as I figure out how to get it from the camera to the Main Squeeze's computer to this here blog, you'll finally see the name inspiration for the blog. (It wasn't actually generated based on random word associations.)