Thursday
May242007

Birchmount Stadium, Home of The Robbie

Something bad happens to my brain when I don't get enough sleep. Oh, yes, there's the crankiness, but my baseline a.m. grump level is sufficiently high so as to render any temporary spike imperceptible.

No, the bad thing to which I refer is the complete lack of mental cohesion I experience. This is why I didn't write at all for the twelve years I was either pregnant or nursing. I can't string two thoughts together for the life of me when I'm this tired. Today, don't call me Ishmael; instead call me 'Randomina.' Or 'Randomella.' 'Randi,' for short--but make sure to dot that 'i' with a little heart, or I'll subtract points for misspelling.

Someone who has been a close friend of mine for 19 years, yet shall remain nameless so that I can pay finger service to preserving his illusion of privacy, sends me links to unusual websites once in a while. It used to be that when he did this, I would think, "Where does he find this stuff? And, more importantly, why?"

I don't wonder anymore, because now I know the answers to both questions. It's the wonder of that random place we call The Internet. Can you fathom the magic, the wizardry, the genius of something that rewards you for typing the words 'watermelon sculpture' into a little box with something like this?

No, it cannot be understood; it can only be shared. My friend didn't send me this latest link, by the way; I found it in a comment over at RaJ's place.

I'm going to brunch this morning at groovy gal Kara's house. Kara is great at co-piloting flights of random thoughts when it's just the two of us, but today there will also be in attendance a bunch of really smart moms whom I have not met before. I'm very concerned I won't make a good first impression. And apparently they are all dieting, which means I can't win them over by bringing Sour Cream Blueberry Muffins, or something similarly brunchy and delicious.

Do you think that if I quickly Bedazzle a T-shirt with the message "Please Like Me" and wear it, they'll obey without noticing? Of course, I'd have to get my hands on a Bedazzler first...perhaps I need another plan.

Speaking of Sour Cream Blueberry Muffins--Ann Hodgman, the funniest food writer ever, once dedicated a cookbook to Keanu Reeves. I'm reasonably sure that a) she doesn't know Keanu personally; and b) Keanu has some sort of eating disorder that would drastically limit his appreciation of Ann's culinary brilliance. Whether or not my suspicions are true, her quixotic gesture endears Ann to me all the more.

And now, I offer you a recipe. Not for the muffins; that belongs to Ann. But following in Ann's footsteps, I dedicate this recipe to someone whom I admire from afar. Ed Robertson, this one's for you.

Birchmount Potato Salad

8 medium potatoes (not the waxy kind, for the love of Mike)
3/4 pound Jarlsberg cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 pound pre-cooked sausage (I used this.)
5 stalks celery, peeled and chopped
1 big handful fresh parsley, chopped
5 green onions, chopped
8 cornichons, chopped (optional, but good)
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
4 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 garlic cloves, pressed
salt & pepper

Peel and cut up the potatoes; put them in cold salted water and boil them until they are cooked through. Drain and set aside to cool for about 15 minutes. Add the cheese, sausage, celery, parsley, onions, and pickles. Mix up the remaining ingredients in a measuring cup, then pour over the potato mixture and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for about an hour. (Or eat it warm, if you don't live with Another Person who has Definite Ideas about the Correct Temperature of Potato Salad.)

If the salad seems dry when you take it out to serve it, mix up another 1/2 cup each of mayo and sour cream, pour in, and mix. Taste the salad and add salt and pepper at your discretion. Serve on plates lined with lettuce or curly endive, if you want to get fancy. Serves seven, with ample leftovers.

Wednesday
May232007

That's me in the corner/That's me in the spotlight


One of my favorite Sesame Street ditties goes:

Three of these things belong together,
Three of these things are kind of the same.
Can you guess which thing just doesn’t belong here?
Now it’s time to play our game!

When I was a kid, contrarian that I was, I liked to find a way in which that fourth thing did belong with the others; it was usually possible, if I got creative enough.

I have a really smart younger brother; he double-majored in Physics and Math in college, and now he’s an engineer. He’s a great dad and husband, an all-around cool guy. If I tell you that he is a Buddhist and a strict vegan, what would you expect his political orientation to be?

Well, he’s not a Democrat, as I found out to my shock in the heated months before the 2000 Presidential Election. I’m sure he was similarly surprised to find out what a huge Al Gore fan I was (and am), since most devout LDS homeschooling-type moms aren’t what you would call liberal. But we both probably should have expected it; incongruity seems to run in our family.

Those who know me are used to my eclectic proclivities. They appreciate that I know all the words to Wire: 154 and Schubert’s "Der Erlkoenig"; that I can watch The Parent Trap (the original) and Fanny & Alexander back to back; that I savor both Marcel Proust and Mary Balogh, both stale Red Vines and ripe Epoisses. But even those closest to me couldn’t figure out what I was doing when I made a certain career choice in February 2004.

It had been a bitter winter, and I was uncomfortably pregnant with young Master Daniel. I was tired, depressed, withdrawn, and heartily sick of being all three. Was it desperation or inspiration that made me call my darling friend Jenna and tell her I wanted to join her Mary Kay team? Definitely the latter: it was the right decision for me at the time.

Jenna and I had a marvelous time together; we both won cars and became Sales Directors pretty quickly. I came out of my shell and formed new friendships. It was satisfying (and lucrative) giving people makeovers and helping them feel attractive. Mary Kay was like a sorority, and I was ‘popular’ for the first time in my life.

In January 2005, I received my National Sales Director’s monthly newsletter, which listed the mid-year leaders for the coveted Queen of Sales position (the MK year runs July to June). There are two Queens of Sales each year in any given National Area: the Consultant Queen and the Director Queen. I was surprised to see that I was in first place--on the Consultant level, since I was debuting as a Director February 1st.

I was also surprised to see that my sales figures were higher than anyone’s on the Director level. Since I’m a tiny bit competitive (stop snickering, Patrick), I decided to see whether I could take the Director’s crown for the year.

Here’s where my inner geek kicked in. I made an Excel spreadsheet listing all of the top Directors and their numbers for the first six months. Every month after that, I painstakingly logged in updates as I got the newsletters, always on the lookout for potential dark horses like myself. For the last month of the year, our NSD (she's the stunning blonde in the photo with me) kept the stats to herself, but by June 30th, I was pretty sure I had it in the bag.

In August we all traveled to the mother ship in Dallas for Seminar, the annual awards ceremony. The minute I checked into my hotel room, I had my confirmation: I had been upgraded to a gorgeous suite containing chocolates, Perrier, and a note of congratulations from my NSD. The limo ride, the banquet, the ceremony, and the sumptuous royalty reception were all part of a great lark. Receiving the 5-carat amethyst ring was a hoot, but the most enjoyable part of that was letting other women try it on and seeing their eyes light up with hope and determination.

My first year as a Sales Director was great, but I gradually realized that it might be time for me to move on. I made sure that that I didn’t neglect my family and my church work despite the fact that I was working pretty much full-time (though from home and with very flexible hours). God, Family, Career: those are the famous MK priorities, and I worked hard to keep them in order.

But that Career thingie left almost no time for me to do anything else. All of the things I write about in this blog got almost none of my time and attention. I only read or knitted when I was on an airplane; the garden languished and I had little time for music or cooking. And after years of not feeling up to writing, I was finally getting that urge again.

It was a painful decision; I worked closely with a group of wonderful women who depended on me for leadership and guidance. But after a lot of pondering and prayer, I called my NSD and told her I was going to retire. I just walked away, Renee. Mary Kay filled a lot of needs for me; I look back on my two years with the Company fondly. But I don’t regret my decision. My life as it is feels just right.



Incongruity: here’s my big ring on my hand with my baking ‘tats,’ as my chef friend Mike calls them, and super short fingernails (necessary when you type as much as I do) a bit stained from gardening. Obviously, I never wear that ring anymore. I’m not really a jewelry girl, wearing only my wedding band and the diamond studs Patrick bought me in The Netherlands ninety-nine percent of the time. I’ve thought about selling the ring and giving the money to Heifer, but I’m afraid my daughters would freak out. Maybe they can figure out some way to timeshare it when they’re grown up, or maybe they'll agree that feeding the poor is more important than a owning a bauble; we’ll see.

So that’s the story behind yesterday’s photo. What incongruities do you have hidden in your closet?

Tuesday
May222007

Celebrate good times, come on!

Here's Daniel with his birthday loot. All three of his presents--giant stuffed sea turtle from us, play camera and drill from Ma & Pa--were huge hits. Before I tell you more, let me acknowledge that I am on (in) a Pop Song Blog Title roll (rut).

Big fun was had at Daniel's shin-dig last night. As promised, I'll recount the making of the Chocolate Lace Cake.

As I have mentioned before, I take as my primary source for cake recipes Rose Levy Beranbaum's peerless Cake Bible. I have no use for flimsy genoises which must needs be infused with syrups simple or otherwise. No. Give me instead either the Downy Yellow Butter Cake or the Chocolate Butter Cake: rich, moist, and yes: buttery. Then frost with Rose's Neo-Classic Chocolate Buttercream Frosting. Ice the top with fluffy flourishes, but keep the sides smooth. This is your result:
Then sprinkle edible gold dust over the fresh frosting and blow gently to disperse the dust:

Melt a 3.5 oz. 70% cocoa chocolate bar; load the melted chocolate into a sandwich-size zipper lock bag and close. Cut the tiniest end off one of the bottom corners of the bag; drizzle the chocolate onto a prepared sheet of waxed paper. (Prepare the sheet by drawing a line equal to the circumference of the cake pan; a 9-inch cake pan's circumference is ~28.5 inches. Then draw a line 5 inches long perpendicular to each end of the long line. This is your guide.) Your drizzle should look something like this:
Now you must wait for the chocolate to harden; the time this takes depends on the temperature of your kitchen. You'll know it's ready when it loses its gloss. Don't wait too long; it needs to be able to hold its shape, but still be flexible enough to wrap around the cake. Once it's ready, fold the bottom edge of the waxed paper under so that the chocolate is right on the edge.

Banish all potentially distracting persons from the room. Carefully lift the paper up and set it on the cake plate right next to the cake. Press it very gently to the cake as you wrap it. Then, while reciting childhood prayers under your breath, peel the paper away from the chocolate, easing the chocolate towards its frosting home as you do so. You will then have this:
That photo is not blurry; it is your eyes, which have misted over with pride and wonder at your accomplishment. Put the cake in the fridge so that the chocolate and frosting can set. As little as a half hour later, serve the cake to a suitably impressed audience:

Ta-da!
Other big news in celebrations:

1) This cool writer I know just won a medal--the Best in State Fiction Award! I'm so proud.

2) Four bloggers I (stalk) read daily have recently won The Rising Blogger's 'Post of the Day' awards; Judd clearly has excellent taste, as Radioactive Jam, Bub & Pie, Mental Tesserae, and a-muse-ing are among the best blogs I've found.
**UPDATED: Adriana at What I Made for Dinner is The Rising Blogger's winnner today! Congratulations! And good use of fiddlehead ferns! Yum...

3) Have I mentioned that #1 son Christian got the highest grade in the whole eighth grade on the NY State science test? Or is it just that I am tempted to brag about it every five seconds?

4) Last but most miraculously, I won the Haiku Contest! The competition was fierce, but friendly and hilarious. Here I am, waving to the adoring crowd before walking down the staircase to accept my award:

(Not really. That's me two years ago winning something else. The photo is here mainly to make the fabulous pezmama happy.)

I'll go celebrate all these victories by eating some leftover cake!

Monday
May212007

A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On


If idle hands are the devil's workshop, I should be demon-free for the next several weeks. We've got all kinds of doings on the agenda here at the Perkins Homestead. Here's an update on activities recently past and in the immediate future.

Saturday I had huge success tracking down details about my cousin Albert Vanderveer (above) and his family. When I work on genealogy, I feel like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Lara Croft. Just can't get enough.

My favorite living writer, Mark Helprin, had an Op-Ed published in yesterday's New York Times. Read it here while it's still free. It's so great to read something non-fiction of his that I agree with; he and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Today a certain sweet toddler turns three. I'll be making my famous Chocolate Lace Cake in his honor this afternoon (I'll post photos tomorrow).

What with the cake, the Weed Dragon, the Trek, the book, not to mention Little League, dance, the piano recital, and several Memorial Day social engagements, I'd better get on the stick right away. I'll be back soon!

Saturday
May192007

Our Family Motto


A couple of years ago, Patrick went to a workshop for men at our church which focused on sharing ways for fathers to create and enhance family unity. One featured speaker had brought his teenage son; together they disclosed the steps they had taken in this regard. They had made a poetic Family Creed, memorializing in verse their values. They had a Family Song that they sang together which expressed why their family is great. And they had made up a Family Motto: "H______s Make It Happen." Father and son agreed that these simple things had strengthened the loving bonds in their home.

Now, I think this is very sweet. Good for them. But earnestness sometimes brings out the smart alec* in my good husband, and this incident was no exception. During the workshop, he texted his awesomely brilliant smart alecky friend (not me, a guy friend), writing, "Our motto is 'Perkinses Eat a Lot.'" Whereupon his friend responded, "Ours is 'F_______s Blow Stuff Up.'" (His boys had had many an explosive adventure in the basement slop sink when they were teenagers.)

Our little circle of friends now has mottos like "There's No Problem Ice Cream Can't Cure," "The Fewer, the Merrier," and "S______s Never Ask for Directions." I'm sure these fall beyond the scope of the H_____ family's intent, but they have created bonds of their own.

All this is a very lengthy prelude to telling you that I was musing ecstatically upon our treasured Family Motto just last night. Patrick and I went to dinner in the City with two lovely friends from our congregation after visiting the temple, and our meal was exquisite.

We went to Picholine, where Terrance Brennan's cuisine reigns supreme. We've been there several times before; this sublime restaurant features a cheese cave tended by a full-time fromager, Max McCalman. At Picholine, our turophilia can be indulged to the fullest extent allowed by law. The other food has always been lovely as well. But I wouldn't have rated it as highly as that of, say, Chanterelle or Bouley--until last night. I don't know what Terry's been up to, but he has kicked it up a notch.

Patrick's aunt says that you can tell how nice a restaurant is by how much extra stuff they bring you; Picholine excels in this area. The waiter brought us a plate with a shot glass full of a chilled Cucumber Cumin Soup, a tiny 'tot' of Brandade, and a Mushroom Panna Cotta Tartlet with a Parmesan Cracker. The Brandade was like tasting God's recipe for fish sticks.

After these amuse-bouches, my appetizer came: Frog Leg Tempura with Foie Gras and a Curried Mayonnaise. I will confess that I'd never eaten frog's legs before, but I'll eat just about anything with foie gras in or on or near it. Guess what? Frog's legs don't taste like chicken. They have a sweet, smoky, tender flavor all their own, and I was wishing for about 24 more when I was done. Patrick had a Sea Urchin Panna Cotta topped with Caviar--sweet cream o' the sea.

Oh, have mercy. My main course was Lamb Saddle with Artichoke Hearts Barigoule and Garlic. Succulent, with perfectly balanced, complex flavors. I tell you, Terrance Brennan is a chef like Monet was a painter. Patrick had Veal Medallions with Morels, Peas, and this gorgeous cheese called Brescianella Stagionata. I can't tell you how his was, because at this point we weren't even offering tastes to each other the way we usually do. But it looked fantastic.

Ahhh, the cheeses. We told the fromager that we love all cheeses and asked him to make a tasting plate for the table. He did not disappoint. My favorite of the eight was the Fium' Orbu, a sheep's milk cheese made by a little old man on the island of Corsica. The fromager told us this cheese might die with its maker, which I fervently hope will not happen. All the cheeses were lovely.

Dessert. Folks, I make really good apple pie. My apple crisp rocks (the secrets are to use local apples and to double the topping). So when I tell you that the Warm Caramel Apple Brioche with Apple Salad and Salted Caramel Ice Cream was the best apple dessert I've ever consumed, know that I do not speak lightly. I'm serious; I almost broke down crying at the first bite. My lemon verbena tisane was the perfect complement to the brioche's light richness. Or rich lightness. As you can see, it defied my pathetic attempts at description.

More extras: little trays of truffles, nougats, and fruit gums followed the dessert. Call it 'second dessert.' The grapefruit fruit gum was like a rarified Sour Patch Kid. It tasted like real grapefruit, but it had a big, sweet-sour intensity that belied its baby size.

We left the restaurant pleasantly full, still mulling it all over as we drove home. Our two friends also enjoyed the meal very much, but I don't want to double the length of this post describing their great choices.

Perkinses Eat a Lot. And they love their food, be it a Sloppy Joe or an evening's bounty like last night's. I don't hold with demonizing food, or feeling guilty about it, or talking about how unhealthy or sinful it is to indulge in it. Food is a blessing, a gift from God.

I do not believe food makes us sick or fat. I believe that what is going on in our minds and spirits has far more to do with metabolism or the body's other functions than science can yet measure.

All I am saying is, give peace a chance. End your war with food. Don't worship it, but do savor it with thanks and praise to its Creator. Share it with as many people as you can; let's take the energy we used to spend on ambivalence over food and use it to find ways to feed the world. And if you ever get a chance, go to Picholine and raise a glass in memory of me.

*The fact that P is sometimes a smart alec makes him exponentially more attractive to me.