Category Archives: Dessert

The Women

There is so much to say about the women in my family. 

This past weekend, my mom and I took care of my niece, Shiloh, while my sister (Miriam) and her husband (Steven) stole away (rather unwillingly) for a few well-deserved days of rest and play in Colorado. Though Darren has been here running errands, grocery shopping, warming up bottles, playing with Shiloh, his strong, many times silent, peaceful presence like a boon of grace – this has been a weekend of womanhood, of motherhood, of intense, joyful, aching, sometimes exhausting femininity. It’s been a weekend of plenty. Laughter. Food. Sleep cravings. Tears. More laughter. Treks in nature. Everything an ordeal. Everything enchanting.

The women in my family know how to carry their bodies. 

I have watched my sister as every movement of her body since motherhood is suspended between precision and complete abandon, as if the only language her body has known is that of caring for a child. Her hands are so quick to hold, to catch, to sustain. They are kind and firm. Always capable. Her body fights through its aches, its fatigue, its murmurations, to always give. 

My niece is hunger, and need, and beauty, so small and self-contained. I am in awe as I watch her. What her body knows. Her implicit trust of my sister. The way she knows the body is there to nourish, to warm, to safeguard. As if she remembers the hard and polished shell that protected her growing, pearlescent flesh. 

My mother and I adjust to her, and she to us. I watch my mother as she remembers this parole of motherhood. How what I’ve never known comes to me with clarity and I yield. My own body bends to meet hers when she cries, to cradle her joy, to crawl on the floor and play games with her. I am never bored, I don’t feel exhaustion till much later when her own small body has grown quiet and heavy with sleep. 

I think about how my mother is so much more than a mother. I remember the stories, my mother rocking me to sleep, a wisp of a woman, 22 years old, her engineering textbooks balanced in her lap. She is a student, later a graduate student, a mother, a wife. She has a successful career as a mechanical engineer. She navigates a man’s world with dexterity and strength. If she cries, or feels weak, it is only in the privacy of our home, maybe late at night, maybe to my father. As a child, I only knew her as strong, as vital, as a woman who could do it all. Who did it all, and under the harsh conditions of Communist Romania. 

I learned my strength from her, she from my grandmother. My grandmother, ever optimistic, incredibly beautiful, erudite far beyond the average woman of her time. She went to college at a time where the prescribed path for women was marriage and children. She loved living things, woods, and orchards, she knew hundreds of bird calls. She became a cultivation expert, her research centered on what trees could be planted in arid areas to change the soil composition, to offer the local populations sustenance. She understood the combinations of alleles and genes that give trees the best survival chances; she understood hybridization. 

She was a storyteller, a writer. She married later in life, had children later. She endured religious persecution. She never stopped learning. Even in her seventies and eighties, after being transplanted from her own country, here in the U.S., she studied English, took computer classes, worked successfully for a couple of decades. She later learned Spanish so she could befriend some of her neighbors. Her last couple of years when she lived with my parents, I remember an astronomy book on her bedside table, our conversation turning towards constellations, rotation, distance. She knew the name of so many stars.

It is in the genes of the women in my family to love beauty, to search for it as an end in itself.

We do it in different ways, insular and shared: my mother in nature, my sister in the faces of the women she counsels. I find it books, in language, in the voices and gestures of those I love. We have all endured hardships, lessened with each generation perhaps, but this spirit of survival, transformed by faith, by knowledge, by connection and community, breathes through each of us. 

It is morning now. As I end this post, I have officially begun my spring break. I’ve just come back to these words after holding Shiloh for her morning nap. I should have put her back in her crib, but those minutes of her sweet breath against my shoulder, her chubby hands grasping my arm with incredible strength for such a small child, they are unlike anything. 

I think of all the lives that whisper in her. The glimpses I see, my grandmother’s, my mother’s expressions, so much of my sister, maybe a little of me. I think of the beauty and strength that lives in her, how one day soon she will language her thoughts, and astonish us with the joy of it all. 

A recipe from my great-grandmother, passed to my grandmother, passed to my mother, passed to Miriam and myself:

Homemade Chocolate (Fudge)

Ingredients:

1.5 sticks unsalted butter
1.5 cups of water
2 cups dark cocoa powder (adjust to taste)
4.5 cups powdered milk
2 cups of raw sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp rum extract (optional)
2 cups of toasted, chopped hazelnuts

Heat the water in a small pot on medium heat, and when it is warmed all the way through  (10 minutes), add the sugar and stir until it is completed melted. Add the stick and a half of butter until it melts and incorporates well into the mixture. Bring to a gentle simmer for five minutes. Turn the heat off, add the rum and vanilla, and let the mixture cool until it is bearable to the skin. Insert finger to test. 

Add the cocoa powder in half-cup increments and stir with a spatula until well incorporated and smooth. Add the powdered milk in half-cup increments as well, again until it is smooth and well-incorporated. The mixture should be thick and cake-like. Add the hazelnuts. 

Grease a 9×12 glass dish and pour the mixture in. Smooth with a moistened knife, and let it cool in the refrigerator for a minimum of three hours. Cut to desired size and enjoy.

*The cacao and powdered milk can be adjusted to taste for a milkier or a darker chocolate. This recipe makes a very dark luscious chocolate that isn’t too sweet. 

Granny Bakes a Pie

My grandmother will turn 95 this June. How can I sum her up for those of you who haven’t met her? Last Mother’s Day, my aunt had brought her a beautiful cake, covered with lovely pink roses. We were taking pictures of Granny holding the cake. At one point, Granny joked that the cake was so pretty she could take a bite right out it. We laughed and said, “Go ahead!” So she did. She brought the cake to her mouth and took a big chunk right out of a rose. Even though we’d all told her to do it, we never thought she would. But we should have known. Granny does what she wants, when she wants. And she’s earned it.

When she was a child, her father was killed in the mines when her mother was pregnant with her little sister. She lived through the Great Depression, extremely poor. She was 51 before she lived in a house with air conditioning. She’d had four children before she lived in a house with an indoor bathroom.

When she was pregnant with her first baby, she lived in a house without indoor plumbing; she had to go down a flight of seventeen outdoor steps and across a street to get water at a nearby house. On her twenty-first birthday, when she was five months pregnant, she had a pot of beans on the stove and went out to get more water. She fell on the steps. She fell all the way down the hill. The pot of beans burned. The baby died the next day. She had to deliver the stillborn baby, her first delivery.

She would go on to have five children, three boys and two girls. Two of those were twin boys—both nine pounds at birth—and by the end of that pregnancy, she was so big she couldn’t reach the sink to do dishes. 

Granny is strong, sweet, playful, resilient, stubborn, lively. She’s outlived her husband, her siblings, most of her friends. In her lifetime, we’ve discovered or invented penicillin, the atom bomb, the toaster, Band-Aids, insulin, frozen food, the traffic light, spiral-bound notebooks, television, bubble gum, radar, nylon. Not to mention the Internet. The iPhone. Blogs.

When I asked her which invention was her favorite, she said TV and the microwave. Of course, she went forever not using microwaves, and she doesn’t really need one now. My grandmother can cook anything. But she’s most famous for her pies. Her pie crusts are perfect, and she could make them blindfolded. (In fact, she hates her current glasses and can’t see well out of them. So, she was practically blindfolded when we made this pie. That didn’t hurt her one bit. Spoiler alert: the pie was amazing.)

Since it’s spring break, we’re getting some extra time to spend with family. Last night, we all gathered at Vicki’s house for taco lasagna (Vicki’s specialty) and salad. Granny, Mom, and I made a chocolate pie, and since we just got a new camera, Jesse decided to film it. Since we’re including the video here, I’m forced to confess: Granny made the pie. Mom helped and watched. And I mostly pestered Mom. It was a lovely evening, and a lovely pie, and a heck of a lot of fun to make. And to eat.

While we’re making confessions, I have to tell you the crust is made with Crisco. You should know that going into it. My mom, a very good cook herself, is also a health nut, a slow-food foodie, a person who buys almost all her food from local farms. She drinks raw milk, makes her own yogurt, bakes bread with flour from wheat she grinds herself. I’m pretty sure that there isn’t anything she likes less than Crisco. But, I told her we would make the pie the way Granny wanted it made, and so Crisco it was.

And, while I haven’t had Crisco in my house since…well, maybe since ever, I have to admit that this crust was perfect. Wonderful to work with and even better to eat. Flaky, light. So, Crisco. Crisco. Of all things.

Did I mention my grandmother is 94? Going on 95? And makes her pie crusts with Crisco. 

So.

That’s all I’m going to say about that. 

Here’s the video. And below, the recipe.

Pie crust:

  • 2 c flour
  • ¼ t (or a little less) salt
  • 1 T sugar
  • 2/3 c Crisco
  • Ice water (6 T)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Combine flour, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add shortening and mix with your hands until the lumps are the size of peas. Add ice water a tablespoon at a time and mix with your hands. Flour your work surface and gently roll out the crust. Put the crust in the pie pan, prick with a fork. Make the edges as cute as you can.

For the chocolate pie, bake the crust by itself in the oven. If you’re Granny, you can get away without using pie weights, but if it had been me by myself, I would have had to use dried beans or pie weights, because try as I might, I can’t get my crusts not to bubble up. Take the risks you feel are appropriate for you.

Bake until done, about 15-20 minutes. Check the crust until it’s nicely browned in spots. Let it cool slightly before filling it.

Chocolate filling and meringue:

  • 2.5 ounces chocolate 
  • 1 ½ c milk
  • ½ c sugar (we were supposed to add more, but it was plenty sweet the way it was)
  • 3 T flour
  • 1 T cornstarch or arrowroot powder
  • ¼ t salt
  • 3 egg yolks (save the egg whites for meringue)
  • 1 T butter
  • Vanilla (Granny said a teaspoon, but it looked like more to me)

Separate yolks and whites. Set aside the whites for meringue and beat the yolks. Set aside. Melt chocolate with the milk on medium heat, then let cool slightly. In a double boiler (or in a pot in another pot with boiling water) combine sugar, flour, and cornstarch; mix with a wooden spoon. Gradually blend in the chocolate milk. Whisk or stir until thickened. You’re looking for the consistency of pudding. Temper the egg yolks and combine with the chocolate mixture. Add vanilla and butter and continue to stir.

Make the meringue. Beat three egg whites until soft peaks form. Start adding the sugar a tablespoon at a time, while beating. It’s finished when six tablespoons of sugar are incorporated and the meringue has a pretty, shiny look.

Now, put it all together. Fill the piecrust with the chocolate filling and top with the meringue. Make sure the meringue covers all the chocolate filling. Pop the pie back in the oven until the top is nicely browned. (Again, do it the Granny way: just keep an eye on it, and when it looks good, get it out of there.)

Let the pie cool as long as you can stand it. We didn’t let it cool long enough, which meant it kind of went everywhere when we cut into it and ate it.

But life is short. So, eat the pie whenever you feel like it. Like Granny would.

And if you want to take a bite of the roses on the top of your Mother’s Day cake without sharing with anyone, go ahead and do that too. 

We Open Windows

So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end — not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart.         – Brian Doyle

I.
I’ve lived in many places, Portland, San Francisco, Wilmington, Atlanta, and though they all hold charm, there is no place I have loved as much as Chicago. A city of silvered lines and sharp planes, a city of water, art, and snow. The first city in the States that holds a skyscraper designed by a woman, the Aqua building, which tour guides will tell you, is designed to resemble a woman’s body. The way it swelled and rippled like a green wave into the gathering clouds was breathtakingly beautiful, and as if I needed more, I fell in love even harder with the city.  

II.
I moved to Chicago for a man I was engaged to. I told myself I was moving for a job, for a change of scene, for that exquisite feeling when everything is new and fresh and you’ve made no mistakes. All of that was true, but in the end, I had to admit that it was for a man and later for the city itself, which drew me in with its brightness and energy, its nouveau-European feel. Six years have passed and I am happily married now to someone else who is wonderful and kind, who makes the grief of that season feel less and less real with each passing year. 

However, that period ignited within me an ache I think I will carry my entire life. I stayed in a relationship that was unhealthy for much longer than I should have. It would have been more loving to leave, but I bull-headedly pressed on. For so long, the thought of breaking an engagement felt like a personal failure, like I was admitting my own inability to discern what was good for me. I couldn’t bear that. So I stayed, and labored, and fought, and then stood aside and watched my carefully constructed world fall brick by brick. 

III.
After I broke the engagement, my love affair with the city continued.  I dug in my heels and stayed, seduced by its mystery and eccentricities, the food, the many languages I heard, high art and few streets away, walls covered in graffiti.  I began to live for the moments when the city would yield itself slowly, as I sat in cafés, watched throngs of people float by. Eight million lives. And the body made its own hum and whir in response to the cold. I became intoxicated with a newfound independence, with pride in my own strength and resilience. I stayed, though I was far away from my family and friends. I became obsessed with work, insular. I had myself, and a beautiful chestnut-haired dog for company, and that became enough. 

 It was much later that a friend gave name to that secret ache I covered with frenzied activity, social engagements, and elusive talk. It took so long to recognize and accept what was happening, because I would have never believed that depression would become my struggle. I had watched friends and some family members go through it; I had felt compassion, sympathy, distance. 

IV.

I don’t know whether this is normative or not, but for me the narrative of depression goes something like this:

1.    You’ve lost something essential that you cannot name. You just know it is gone.
2.   Some things are not a matter of faith, though you hear over and over again that if you had more faith you would be fine. 
3.   The easiest, most ordinary things become a burden.
4.   Everything is about some grand existential question, until you become tired. Then you stay tired for what feels like an eternity.
5.   Food loses aroma, feels like dust in the mouth. You wonder if you’ll ever take pleasure in anything again.
6.   It is you, a small buoy in vast, dark water. The stars are far, far away. And God feels even farther. 
7.   Prayer, meditation, wine, being out with friends, novels, birdsong, sunlight, Mozart, laughter, nothing helps. 

Until it does…

V. 
I eventually moved away, lived with my sister and brother for a while. In the end, that saved me. Being in their home where I was loved, I began to let silence enter my being, and in that silence I awakened to myself again, fragment by fragment. Saint Paul has a name for God so resonant, Kardiognostes from the Greek, which means the Heart-Knower. I like to believe that though it often feels that we are afflicted with a profound internal solitude, in fact, someone transcendent, loving, creative knows us. That He is as near as our next breath. 

 Though I still have seasons of ache and loss, I am better. Because in the silence, I discovered a very real essential living self. Because I am known, and I am loved. Because I have dear friends (yes, you Erin) who listen and understand, and identify with the struggle. Because my husband fills our home with white roses. Because I spend every other day with my sister and perfect niece. Because friends come and sit around my dining room table, eat the food I prepare, laugh, drink wine, tease me when my Romanian accent comes through. Because poetry, I’ve discovered, is not just on the page, but (to borrow from the language of the saints) in this kingdom of ordinary time.

VI. 
I chose pana cotta, because I knew this post would be difficult and scary to write, and I needed a little comfort. Because this is a brilliantly easy dessert, luscious, textured like silk, and pairs well with almost any kind of meal. But mostly, because it is a reminder that pleasure has been restored to me. That my soul can still feel joy. That living holds all the magic it did before, except maybe a little more, because now I know its fragility. 

Recipe for pana cotta from the marvelous Ina Garten can be found here.