Food and other edible substances will be reviewed, recommended or scathingly panned. Be warned, I am a highly critical foodie. If you tell me you serve Fried Ice Cream…it had better have met the deep fryer or your reputation is toast.
Plans are in place. Only one more day before I am free.*
I’ve tried to hide my growing excitement. I still swear like a drunken sailor whenever I step on crayons in the yard.
I only hope I didn’t give it away earlier. Boss Baby was playing in the rec room. There’s this scene where the kid is grounded—his bedroom is his prison. When the kid’s talking, wizard alarm clock tries to grab a shank to make a break for it, I about died laughing!**
Man, if that isn’t a sign I need to get out of here, I don’t know what is.
It wasn’t always this way; I used to have a life.***
Okay, so maybe casing the Gem and Mineral show isn’t the act of a repentant criminal, but can you blame a gal for seeking any kind of distraction when serving a life sentence?
All I want is a little clarity…cut, color, and carats! And what do they give me? False hope diamonds!
Breaking rocks in the hot sun would be so much more pleasant if we were hunting out sparkly specimens that look like dragon droppings!
When I get out…I might even try my hand at a little fancy re-marketing. No longer will I be the chauffeur who slavishly drives the ‘Boss Baby’ wherever his heart desires. No! I will be the wild, carefree road warrior women envy and men want. (Hey, if we’re going to fantasize…)
I will hit the interstate for places unknown. I will decide my fate. Or, at least, I won’t default to Highway 196 and exit 41 as the corrections officer insists we take every time we do roadside clean up.
My parole hearing is coming up, so I baked the warden a mini devil’s food cake. I know…shameless pandering.
I even invited the corrections officer to supervise so he wouldn’t suspect anything.
I have to say, they didn’t turn out so bad–for prison food.
After slaving away for, like, forty minutes, we have a decent product, if I do say so myself.
The warden scarfs the thing down and I ask him, “So, wasn’t that fun?”
You wanna know what he said?
There’s no respect in this joint. No loyalty. None.
That’s why I’m oughtta here tomorrow. I’m gonna Easy-Bake my way into my own ‘early release.’
This time, I won’t forget to put the file into the cake.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*…to have a nervous breakdown.
**True. This happens. In a movie about a baby there is a reference to a shank. And I did laugh loud enough to be rolling on a floor except movie theater floors prohibit that kind of enthusiasm.
***Okay, that’s a stretch. Only Webster’s would call what I do on a daily basis, ‘having a life.’
__________You’ve read this far bonus:_____________
In case you wondered how it is I–an adult with a boy-child–have an Easy Bake Oven, here’s the story behind the best Christmas present I ever got.
This is a blog post I wrote before I ever became a blogger. Posted on The Green Study–who is to blame for giving me my first taste of fame and is responsible for my continued life of blogging crime:
Just after posting my celebratory hurrah about our South Haven Adventures last week, I get home and decide to compound my success by being a ‘good parent.’*
“C’mon son. Let’s go for a walk.” I say.
I’m thinking of a brisk stroll, fresh air, and then getting back to the house to tackle some work. It is a good game plan.**
As I have mentioned before, my son is a runner. He would explore a lion’s den given half a chance. Like Austin Powers, his middle name is “Danger.” Unfortunately, this evening is no exception. As we walk, he keeps pointing out buildings he would like to ‘visit’ and even writes house numbers down on his papers when I don’t seem to pick up on his subtle signals when he tries to drag me to the front door.
The night is turning colder when I spot the Grand Villa in the distance. This is a local restaurant which goes by the nickname “The Dungeon” because of its subterranean locale. If I had seen their website beforehand, I might have taken heed of the warning they post in their tagline:
Teeth chattering, I haul my child away from the housing complex he is lunging toward—a nondescript giant block of apartments in what once was a large family home. Seeing as my son is now 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs as much as an overindulged Great Dane, this takes some effort.
I lure him in with the promise of chocolate milk.
Twenty minutes later, warm again and well quaffed, we gather our things to go. Then I consider the nearly mile-long walk back to the house…in the cold…and decide the bathroom should be our first stop. I send my son into the men’s room and wait for a few seconds…before deciding I’d better make sure myself and pop into the ladies.
I swear I peed in less than a minute and was back out to wait for my son. A MINUTE. That’s all it took. My clever, devious, Machiavellian boy was gone.
You can pretty much predict the rest. After a frantic and futile search of the area, I’m on the phone with 911. While talking with them, I see a police car pull up alongside the road. I hail them while I’m on the phone with the operator.***
Now I’m babbling at two different sets of people—neither of whom can understand me—when someone calls out:
“We’ve found him!”
Another police officer escorts my happy, oblivious-to-the-chaos-he-causes boy to my weeping embrace.
My son is returned safe and sound and, though he had broken into a home, no one is hurt. A few papers are stolen and have to be retrieved. He’d even had time to scribble calendars on the back as a memento to the family he invaded. I hope they frame them.
In those interminable minutes he is out of my grasp, I imagine enough scenarios to make my heart stop a thousand times. I am honestly surprised it doesn’t kill me.
Once home, my child goes to bed with no complaints. I think on some level he recognizes mommy has had it. I turn off my phone and tune out the world and spend the evening overwrought and shaking.
The next day, I find the energy to call my mom.
“Hey, mom…Little Man is okay, but I have to tell you something that happened last night. Understand, I can’t take any comments about what might have happened. I still feel so emotionally raw I can barely breathe.”
My mom knows about loss. I had a sister—Robin. She died of crib death before I was even born. As a result, mom has had a super-charged paranoia about any dangers we faced as kids and I think this has multiplied exponentially for her grandchildren.
I re-live the night before as factually as I can without breaking down. She lets me vent. It is what I need—a shoulder to cry on without judgment. It is phone call catharsis at its best. Mom says she’ll check in on me later, but she has something to do first. I ring off feeling a shade lighter than before.
My mom stops by that afternoon, carrying a cooler. I unpack it while she tells me a story of her own. When I get to the table with a warm bundle wrapped in a towel, she is drawing me a map as she talks:
“When I was a little girl, my father took me to the ice cream shop at the Occidental Hotel in Muskegon. It’s torn down now, but it was located between Clay and Webster Street downtown—it’s in the same area the Frauenthal Theater and the culinary school are now.”
I pull up my computer to help in the search for yesteryear landmarks. We have a doozy of a time since mom—who has a much better sense of direction than me—apparently can’t reorient her mind to the north-on-top directionality Google maps insists on presenting.
“Anyway, they had a famous hot fudge sauce that I absolutely loved. We didn’t go out very often so it was a big treat to go there. So I made this for you!”
As mom is saying this, she’s unwrapping the towel to reveal a small Corningware casserole dish wrapped in plastic wrap with a band of duct tape for extra insurance. (She’s not messing around with spills!)
“After you told me about your adventure, I thought you could use a treat.” Mom says.
She makes me sit down with a big bowl of ice cream and a dollop of the chocolaty, silken sauce melting over the white caps of vanilla-y goodness.
She then tells me more about our connections to the famed hotel with the equally famous sauce.
“Do you remember the lamp your father brought back when they sold off the property and its belongings?” She asks.
I would have been eight in 1975, and home furnishings weren’t a high priority in my experience, so I shake my head and take a bite. I swallow her memories with each taste.
“It was a heavy iron lamp and we put it in your room with the flowered Crosscill bedspread and curtains—you remember those?”
I had loved that frilly bedroom set up until I left for the Army. It was gone when I got back home four years later and I truly mourned its loss. I nod and lick the spoon. No words are necessary when you have hot fudge. Mom continues to wax nostalgic about the past:
“I was nineteen in 1959. I remember going to a Valentine’s dance there once–sponsored by the Elks, I think. A boyfriend, Jack Boles, took me to a ball at the hotel when we were dating. Do you remember the beautiful dress you borrowed for school that was stolen?”
This I distinctly remember. It was my first experience with theft. I borrowed it for a theater skit for a character in the show. It was gorgeous red dress of some kind of stiff but silky material. I have never quite forgiven myself for losing that dress.
“It was a play, Mom. We were performing at the elementary school. The dress disappeared from the prop and costume boxes before we finished the shows.” I interject. I’m apologetic—it’s a script we’ve enacted whenever we rehash the event.
“It had a square bodice and the style was so grown up. The sheer overlay matched the underskirt perfectly. Do you remember the fabric?” Mom holds her hands out as if measuring the width of a belled skirt.
“It had a swirly pattern—nothing distinct, like paisley, but more like the swirls you see when oil floats on water.” I say.
[A hunt online produced similar styles but nothing is exactly like what she had:]
Close but no cigar!
Similar tulle overlay
Now it’s her turn to nod.
“Yes! I wore it when I was in the beauty contest at the ball—you’ve seen that picture, right?”
It is a small, black-n-white snapshot of three women in ball gowns. Mom was the first runner-up. In the photo, she stands to the left of two other women—all dressed up and carrying bouquets of now, long-dead flowers. It was a night of beautiful memories.
The fudge sauce is slowly disappearing as we reminisce. We look online trying to find a photo of the ice cream parlor that existed before The Occidental Hotel was imploded in 1975 to make way for a parking lot. But all we can find are details of the implosion. The article is an epitaph for a leveled landmark torn down in pursuit of a mall that would later close of its own fiscal demise.
The ice cream is gone and I scoop up the remains of the cooling, lava-like gooeyness to store in the fridge.
“Be sure to hide it from the boy or he’ll eat it all!” Mom warns before giving me a hug goodbye.
It’s after she’s gone and I’m cleaning up that I realize what she’s done. It is what all mothers do—try to make it better. When you skin your knee, she offers a kiss. It is a little sugar to take away the bitterness that life sometimes hands you. I may be an adult, but I am not immune to the sway of childhood remedies or memories—be they mine or my mother’s. The sweetness cannot stop the pain, but it can make it better. And when those remembrances come with chocolate sauce—it surely does.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Being a Good Parent—a laudable goal that, when I try to do it on purpose, results in immediate failure.
**Life is out to get me most of the time and rarely needs a good reason. Still, I thought, in light of my good intentions, the universe was being a real shit not to reward me.
***No matter how many times I have called 911, I do not improve with experience. I am just as hysterical and useless each and every time. I owe sincere apologies to the people who man those phones…and probably a fruit basket.
———–You read this far bonus—————–
I just had to include this photo. It is the entire line up of contestants from that long ago Valentine’s beauty pageant.
They say the Early Birdgets the worm…sometimes, however, you get the best nest you’ve ever tasted.
I went to lunch with a friend yesterday. She suggested the recently re-imagined coffee shop located on Lake Street in East Town Grand Rapids. Formerly the Kava House, I remembered the place as a hip pastry shop where 20-something college students wondered how a middle-aged mom had wandered into their tech-savvy locale. (I was surprised I wasn’t stopped at the door for lacking a laptop.) I liked it when the building was a coffee/tea space but I love what the new owner has done with it. Especially the food.
If you join me at That Early Bird, expect the unexpected.
I had a hard time picking.* Look closely at the sign board above and you’ll see why.** My inner six year old wanted the baked French toast stuffed with blueberry compote, but I’m stuffed enough as it is, so I passed. I ended up picking the Avocado Smash and boy, was I not sorry.
If you had asked me that morning what I thought of combining soft boiled eggs, avocado, raw cabbage, grilled corn and an English muffin with lime creme, I would have laughed at you. After the above benediction from heaven, however, I don’t have time to laugh. Too busy wiping up the drool.
Now my friend asked me, “Why are you posting about something that sounds like a Facebook post?”*** Mostly because it gives me one more post to put off writing a long-overdue piece evaluating my literary efforts. (So, basically a win-win for us all.)
Lastly, I would have included a picture of the enormous (I’d use ginormous, but I don’t like to encourage deviant linguistics) biscuits and gravy my friend finally decided on, however, she’d already dug into a fair portion of the mountainous food before I got my camera ready. She enjoyed it immensely and I think lumber jacks would have found the portion satisfying. I was happy with my lighter repast.
So if you like fine–and truly unique–dining, there’s no need to get up at dawn to enjoy a meal with the Early Bird crew. And you can rest at ease, there are no worms allowed at this establishment.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*With things named as ‘vertical paradise mustard greens,’ who can blame my confusion?
**I have to wonder if they offer marriage counselling to go with the Huevos Divorciados? Ditto, I have questions about what the two sauces represent: “Green” suggests separating you from your moolah and “Red” signifies your beating heart torn from your chest?
Saturday, I fulfilled a long-awaited, death-defying pleasure—learning The Way of Tea (Chadō) at the Meijer Gardens’ Japanese Tea House in Grand Rapids, MI. Allow me to take you on the journey…
[Insert wavy time machine effect here.]
The day has a mugginess to it that only people of equatorial descent can appreciate. Occasional breezes cause drops in temperature that turn skin from sweaty to clammy in a soggy instant. The air practically vibrates with thermal shifts.
Ten or so participants mill around a bench at the matchiai—the waiting area outside the tea house. Fellow guests discuss the progress of the formation of the Japanese Garden—opened just last year—as well as the availability of tea houses in the surrounding area.*
The Meijer Gardens’ tea house is surrounded by lush greenery and the walkway leading to the building is paved with irregular stones. Discrete signs warn visitors to watch their step. A guide explains the unevenness of the path is intentional—so that you pay attention to where you walk in a thoughtful manner.** She also warns us to ‘bow low’ as we cross the threshold—both to humble ourselves in preparation and to prevent head injury in the taller guests.
Our hostess appears, a slender woman in a yellow kimono, beckoning us with a soft voice to follow her.
We duck under the low gate between the matchiai and the cha-shitsu—or tea house proper. Near the entrance, a wash basin gurgles. We are told it is intended for guests to purify and refresh themselves before entering—though we are asked to admire it from afar. We remove our shoes before slipping into the small building.
The tea house was built in Japan, disassembled, shipped here, and reassembled on site. It is modeled on Japanese specifications—with some allowances for Western comforts. The floor is not entirely made of tatami—and we are not required to scoot in on our knees as proper guests would expect to do. Once seated on square, silken cushions on benches along the wall, we meet our hostess, Yumiko Narita and her assistants: Tomoyo Koehler, who plays the role of ‘guest’ in the demonstration and Miyuki Muramoto, who afterward helps to serve the visitors.
Anita Savio, the Public Affairs Director from the Consulate General of Japan in Detroit, narrates for us throughout the chanoyu (tea service). She says that, typically, the exchange is presented in silence with rare scripted exchanges between the hostess and her primary guest.
Acceptable questions the guest may ask include the origin of the bowl that is central to the ceremony. The chawan at this service, we learn, comes from the Shiga Prefecture—which in Japan is the sister state to Michigan. The bowls and utensils were commissioned there specifically for this reason. Much admiring of the bowl is required before, during, and after the tea is presented and drunk. Additionally, the guest might comment on the weather…this would have been helpful in the hours to come…had we actually discussed this.
Names and steps for the tea service whip past in swift progression. I do my best to follow each detail, but at one point I decide it is easier—and more in keeping with the spirit—to witness rather than try to capture the experience in my cramped notes.
Anita Savio describes the honors of being a guest—approaching on one’s knees to kneel and offer respect to the scroll which has been chosen particularly for this occasion. Later, Miyuki copies the artistic Japanese swoops into my notes. She explains the sentiment “Ichi-go, Ichi-Ay means “One Time, One Meeting.” This seems like an appropriate statement for the rare pleasure of watching a centuries old art form. Or you could say:
“One only has the present moment—the future is not a promise.”
(How do you like that foreshadowing?)
We learn that the outside world rank does not signify—that all are equal inside the tea house. Thus it is very bad manners to wear jewelry or other signs of wealth. (I surreptitiously sneak my necklace into my bag upon hearing this.) No doubt we are breaking many rules but, as foreigners to the art, we are forgiven our ignorance.
A red silk cloth is used to purify already clean utensils. We learn that the scoop used for pouring the water is called a kagami—the same word the Japanese use for ‘mirror.’ The hostess holds the kagami up and looks into it before using it, as if to measure her soul for readiness for the ordeal ahead. (Although there may be poetic license in this interpretation—everywhere I have since looked online the scoop is called a hishaku—though there are various schools of chanoyu.)
About half-way through the ceremony, rain begins to fall. Each plink of water hitting the tile roof accompanies the delicacy of movement as first the bowl is tempered with hot water and the whisk is similarly primed to make it flexible.
I watch the graceful movements between the hostess and her guest—every bow, shuffle, gesture and placement of utensils marks appreciation for the craft and respect for all in attendance. The bowl for serving tea is rotated clockwise in several stages. It is like a ballet for a beverage. As you watch, you realize this is an act of love; for no other reason fully explains why anyone would devote this much time and effort to perfecting an ancient tradition.
We are given a round, pink sweet that is served before we drink. It is completely unforgivable to add sugar or honey to the tea, but the sweet—or wagashi—serves the function of balancing the bitter. Made of azuki bean paste, it is an unfamiliar taste though not entirely unpleasant and similar in texture to marzipan. It is beautifully shaped to mimic a ‘botan’ or peony flower.
Nature suffuses the tea service. There are special teas held at different times of the year. A garden surrounds the tea house where guests may take their repose before or sometimes during the services at a longer ceremony. It is carried into the space in the art of chabana—the flower arrangement that is crafted to complement this day. It is in the errant wind that blows through open windows.
After the ceremony, we visitors are given our own bowl with a unique design. Of note, the bowl is turned until the ‘best side’ faces the guest. Bows are exchanged and before the guest can taste the tea, the bowl must be admired. In the ceremony, there are multiple stages of sitting the bowl on the tatami and admiring it and asking questions of its heritage before the bowl could be returned—beautiful side facing out. Fortunately, as witnesses, we are not required to be so precise—a simple bow suffices both in receiving and returning the treasured tea bowl.***
As the tea ends we are free to ask questions.
We learn that both the hostess and first guest are wearing the kimono of married women—long sleeves are reserved for maidens for the length is better for flirting. The kimono has no buttons, zippers, or pockets. This raises the question ‘where do you put things?’
Tomoyo Koehler demonstrates the usefulness of sleeve folds where she stashes her fukusa—or silk napkin. For larger items, she shows us a rectangular fabric purse that she turns and slips into the drum-style obi she wears at her back. The greatest decoration can be found on the obi. Some ways of tying the material can be very elaborate in shapes like fans, bows, and butterflies.
The tea we attended is only the smallest portion of a full-length ceremony. A full-blown service might take four hours or longer and involve a first tea—a thicker Matcha tea—and a meal of sumptuous cuisine (Kaiseki-ryori) in bite-sized portions. We are offered the lighter, final tea. In truth, what we were given seems thick enough. I thought it looked a bit like blended wheat grass and tasted like an herbal remedy rather than the clear green tea I am familiar with.
We also learn that the fan that is brought by the guest is strictly ceremonial and is never opened. It represents the weapons that Samurai warriors would leave outside the tea house—eschewing violence in favor of humble accord with all guests. The small fan is presented on the tatami, the guest bows to the scroll and, once seated, the fan is placed behind the guest the entire time.
The chado—the art of tea—stems from a tradition brought back by a monk who visited China. At the time, tea was considered medicinal and served a holy function to help the monks stay awake during meditation. When the expensive habit was adopted by the aristocracy and then later was taken on by the Samurai class, the formality of tea preparation and service ascended to a cultural tradition which lasts to this day. It is an art which takes a lifetime to master.
“One must first study to be a guest before one can learn to serve.” Anita Savio.
There is no way to truly convey the gravity and generosity of these women in inviting us to this experience. Yes, we paid a fee to attend, but the intent when participating in the tea is that one is personally invited to a sacred space. And by the end of the chadoyu, you certainly feel honored.
My first epiphany of the day is—one can either experience or observe—you cannot do both.
My later epiphanies will blow you away. But that will have to wait for the next installment entitled “Tea with Tornados.”
I know it’s been a while. Sorry ‘bout that. I get busy. I know, I know. It isn’t an excuse. That’s why I’m going to make it up to you. It’s time for a girl’s night out! Even Kirsten said she’d come—her hubby will watch the kids while we frolic! Go ahead, get gussied. I’ll wait.
Surprise! We’re heading to Holland for dinner and a show—Kirsten is meeting us there for a Saturday night on the town! Can you believe it? Hang on. “Hello?” (It’s Kirsten.) ” Holland Brewery is overflowing? No problem!”
Kirsten suggests Butch’s nearby—so convenient as it is one block west. We whisk off for an alfresco dining experience at Butch’s Dry Dock. You’ve a perky step that wasn’t there earlier in the day.
Have I told you how nice you look? The earrings are a nice touch.
You saunter through the sublimely bland concrete exterior, pretending to belong. The interior hallway displays expensive looking clothes—a well-heeled, faux brick shopping plaza.
The host leads you to a patio where giant sunscreens shade quiet, well-dressed patrons. Kirsten ‘Woo Hoos’ for you to join her; it’s a bit noisy with the rustle of seating and umbrella adjusting to keep us from drowning in the sun as we eat. You can tell middle-aged moms don’t get out much—we laugh as we decipher the cryptic menu. The rest of our meal we are the table to be! Laughter races from topic to topic. Our neighbors’ conversations never rise above a murmur the whole evening! How do they know when they’re having fun?
This is the fine dining portrayed in rich television dramas. The menu offers carpaccio ‘dusted with cocoa nibs’. Confit, chutney and cipollini are scattered on the menu in the same casual manner a fast food worker would ask, “Do you want fries with that?” The napkins on the table are cloth, lovingly scrolled in their own holster mid-table. No more McDonald’s cubed food for us! Now you can say you’ve risen to the hoi polloi at least for one meal!
Kirsten orders probably the sunniest looking martini you have ever seen—the Sweet Georgia is a slice of pink-orange froth accented with lemon. It tastes like a promise of eternal youth, almost masking the sticker shock of $11.00 with each tangy swallow. One sip is your reward for eyeing the drink like a thirsty spaniel. Kirsten is such a marshmallow!
Our waiter is sufficiently aloof to make a British butler proud, we warm much faster to red-haired Jack (of our hearts) who checks to see our glasses never empty. We dub him the ‘water boy’ as he obviously isn’t a waiter. He fixes our wobbly table and, with a furtive look, first left, then right, promises to provide a diversion so you can steal the menu.
The meal arrives in stages. We share the most exotic spinach salad ever concocted. Spicy bites of candied ginger pair with the grapefruit—but do challenge the palate with pepitas and a rough-ground mustard vinaigrette. The avocado is neutral and balances the whole. The table votes that it is a winner! Huzzah!
The meals arrive just in time to keep us from hunting down our waiter—though we do dragoon Jack into getting us some salt and pepper.* The verdict on the entrees is mixed. Kirsten braves the ethnic dish ‘Bahn Mi’ and concludes that, “It’s a good pork sandwich, but it doesn’t taste as good as the Bahn Mi served at the more authentic Huyen’s.” Even a dash of balsamic doesn’t fulfill the umami bite she’s looking for.
“You got the best dish of the three of us.” She says, eyeing your flatbread a little wistfully.
Go ahead gloat, I know you want to.
The brandade is good, but a tad salty. The brandade….you know, the smoked whitefish topped with bread crumbs served in a ramekin on a gold-edged plate? What? Ramekin.
R. A. M. E. K. I. N.
No, it’s a little dish to serve small souffles or dips like this one in. Why would you think I’d be talking about a Norwegian elf? It sounds Norwegian? Just eat your flatbread.**
So the banh mi that’s not a banh mi and the white fish are a smidge disappointing but the flatbread rules. The real draw is the bonhomie, under a hot sun, inviting warm exchanges.
“Will you look at the time!”
We’d better hustle if we’re going to make the show. But of course, there’s always time for a little detour…
I see you! You’ve spotted the candy store next door. So that’s why you skipped dessert! Okay, one…maybe two truffles, but then we’ve got to go!
Nibbling our chocolate, we head to the Holland Civic Theater for live entertainment in a new production: The Lies the Bind.
Kirsten warns us, “It’s a tearjerker.”
I know, I know, I should have checked with you, but I wanted it to be a surprise. Okay, so it’s a drama. I know, you like comedy, but a little drama never hurt anybody, right?
The Holland Civic Theater is located in a corrugated gingerbread house of a building. It even has the curlicue decorations along the eaves.*** It looks like a former church and we, the penitent, file into the pews awaiting the Southern discomfort to come.
Turns out the small venue is perfect for the family on the brink of tragedy. The space is intimate—you are knees to neck with the audience member in front of you. The line of sight is a bit awkward.
“Someone should tell management to stagger the chairs.” What do you mean, shush? You shush. Oh right, the show is starting.
TWO HOURS LATER…
Okay, so next time, we do comedy. No, I know you don’t like it when bad things like that happen…especially to children. Yes, yes. You get to pick the next one. A musical? You know how I feel about musicals! Okay, Galavant was an exception; who doesn’t love a good spoof musical? What about Ella? You mean the movie based on the book Ella Enchanted? That wasn’t really a spoof musical, now was it! No, it wasn’t good either. But you’ll admit, Anne Hathaway did her best to save it. Yes, yes. The book is turning over in its grave. Right, no more theater tickets without your express approval.
What? Yes. You can use my hanky. I’m sure you just got something in your eye.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*The subtle hint by condiment omission is that everything the restaurant serves is delicious without question. Only a hairy-knuckled troglodyte would add a thing!
** This is why we don’t go out for fancy dinners—one sip of martini and we’re lost.
***Alright, alright. I don’t know architecture terms. What do you call that bric-a-brac found along Swiss chalets?
Winter is LONNNNNNNG. Like trapped-in-a-conversation-with-someone-who-just-won’t-take-the-hint-that-my-interest-was-over-when-they-brought-up-their-explosive-digestive-issues-and-the-massive-and-highly-disgusting-failure-of-home remedies-made-with-eels-and-cod-liver-oil-for-said-constitutional-problems long.*
That is why CAKE was invented.
I cannot take credit for this recipe. It is a gift from my mother who made it for most of my birthdays and made a giant-sized one for my wedding. I finally made one for myself this weekend and I never want to lose this recipe again. So, I am putting it out for the whole world to enjoy.**
Mary’s Carrot Cake
3 Cups grated carrots (I do mine in the blender and drain well)
2 Cups flour
2 Cups sugar
1 ½ Cups oil
2-4 tsp Cinnamon (I use 4)
2 tsp Baking soda
2 tsp Baking powder
1 tsp salt
½ Cup toasted pecans (omit if stomach problems)
½ Cup raisins
Mix all dry ingredients (sift) and add the rest of the goods and mix well. Grease and flour baking pan. Bake at 350° for 30 to 40 minutes in a 9×13 pan.
(I used two smaller pans and it took about 40 – test for doneness as you go.)
Cream Cheese Frosting:
8 oz package of cream cheese softened
1 stick butter or margarine softened
4 Cups of powdered sugar or a little more if you like it stiffer
I am the proud owner of a new Toyota Prius V. Or rather, I’m very close to being a proud owner. Unlike horseshoes and hand grenades, being close to owning a car isn’t very satisfying. (Although, one could make an argument that having hand grenades explode isn’t desirable either. I guess it depends on whether you are on the receiving end of that exchange.) This is why I am grateful for pastries. Allow me to explain.
Last week Wednesday, I’m anticipating the joy/terror of getting a brand new car.* I am giddy after finally making up my mind (despite the pressures of family and friends to pick almost any other vehicle) to buy a Toyota Prius V. Blue. It must be blue. In a delighted state of anticipation, I walk to the nearest bakery on my lunch hour to indulge in taste-testing a champion cupcake. Chocolate. It must be chocolate. Cakabakery won awards** for being able to stand the hot lights of fame and produce magical muffins on the Food Network Cupcake Wars bake-off. I had to try these puppies. Victory never tasted so sweet. As it turns out, I celebrated a bit too prematurely.
It’s Thursday, I’ve just signed over the contents of my checking account and put a hefty balance on my Visa when the nice car guru takes me out to teach me all the confusing knobs and dials I need to learn to be able to drive my car***
Guru: “And this button here will interface with the satellite to allow you to revisit 70’s music.”
Guru: “Why does it need to interface with a satellite?”
Me: “Why would I want to listen to 70’s music? Living through that era was bad enough.”
As you can see, it was going swell. Then she tried to swipe the magic screen developed by Hogwarts School of Engineering when…nothing. The screen locked up. For the next two hours, the fine folks at the Toyota dealership tried to figure out why. Time passed…slowly. I was dropped off to buy the car so I have no way of demanding my money back and stalking out, not unless I want to walk the sixty or so miles home and my phone battery is nearly dead. My blood sugar drops as my ire increases. To save the lives all around me, I walk to the nearby Rykse’s Bakery and Restaurant for lunch. After enough chicken salad to pacify a slavish horde, I purchased a cookie for my son. This bakery makes great things, one of which is iced cookies that they number with frosting (for no real reason I can see). My son loves numbers. I pick out a six—at least one of us will be happy. I’m walking back to the dealership, cookie balanced atop my leftover, when it happens. The cookie flies off and hits the ground. The cookie cracks; the number six is now just a sad suggestion of its former numeric self and I learn my brand new car will need to be fixed.
I really want to cry.
Broken pastry in hand, I finally leave the dealership with the loaner car and a strong longing to never return. Except they have my car. My blue, blue car. Sigh…blue, blue me.
To assuage my grief, there were more cupcakes to be had. This time, I hit the Cupcakes by Design people in Grandville, MI. These confections had a ratio of at least 75% frosting to 25% cake. If you like frosting, this place is for you. I snatched a caramel, mocha chocolate and a chocolate brownie cupcake to taste test at home. (Some crises call for a double-chocolate antidote.) If I have to suffer, the upside will come glazed or slathered in frosting. That’s just the way I roll. (Emphasis on roll.) Defeat has never tasted so good.
Tuesday I went to yoga and discovered the downside to a combination of cupcakes and Netflix binging.
Today, I have survived nearly a week of car nebulosity and will be returning to the dealer to—hopefully—pick up the newly repaired, blue beauty. And if it isn’t fixed? Well, sometimes, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*New car smell is immediately washed away by the stench of anxiety waiting for that first dent.
You know how you sometimes picture a perfect occasion? Not really? Okay, c’mon! Work with me here. Your brain is crammed with the planning, the vision of how exactly something is supposed to go?* Then the wet fish of reality hits you upside the head? Yeah, that’s pretty much how my efforts to host a tea party this past week went.
First came: The Idea. Last summer whilst my son was at camp, I visited Mackinac Island and enjoyed a sumptuous, if overpriced, Tea at the Grand Hotel. I thought to myself, “I ought to host an event like this!”
Second came: The Recipe. Reading Sarah—A Young Foodie’s—Blog I was inspired to try and make the Foolproof Victoria Sponge.** I had the chutzpah to look at sugary, confection perfection and say, “I can bake that.” Turns out, it wasn’t so ‘foolproof’ after all.***
The recipe itself was fairly basic—if calling for an inordinate amount of butter and eggs. But the numerous British terms had me revisiting my childhood fear of metric conversion and scrambling around my local Meijer’s store trying to locate something called ‘Caster Sugar’. Turns out there is a stage between the coarse granulated grains most of us use in baking and the fine, talcum powder consistency of powdered sugar. It’s called Baker’s Sugar here in the States—in case you want to try making this. (Read: in case you are a masochist.)
The day before the party, I’m cleaning my house like a mad woman, throwing together the makings of three…count them…three kinds of tea sandwiches, lemon zested cookies and the delectable dessert which is to be the crowning achievement of my table. I decided to tackle the sponge first. I’m like a virgin on her wedding night—nervous, but excited. But I’m all, “Bring on the groom…er…I mean, cake.”
Third Came: The Wet Fish of Reality. I pull together my sponge ingredients, painstakingly following the instructions. I slid my pans into the oven and commenced work on the sandwiches…only to discover the bread I had put in the freezer had fused each slice next to the other. While struggling to dissect that mess, the wonderful odor of cake rising in the oven prompts me to peek in and see how it’s doing. (Did you gasp with horror? That’s because you know what’s coming. It’s the slasher flick equivalent of a sorority girl heading into a dark cellar. You are all collectively shouting: “No! Don’t Go In There!)
When the timer finally dinged and I pulled my masterpiece out of the oven, it was to discover that my beautiful-smelling dessert looked like a California sinkhole had formed underneath it. My cakes had fallen. (I’m not sure where the bridal analogy would go in this scenario…but calling my cakes flaccid would be appropriate.)
Faced with my Failure Sponge and shredded loaf of bread, did I give up? No! This is where the British came up with the stiff-upper lip-ism. When faced with defeat…we rise to bake again.
Not trusting my first efforts, I find what looks like an easier version on the internet and throw that into a spring form pan and hope for the best. It came out of the oven looking pretty good. I hurdled the stumbling blocks to making the perfect tea party and sallied forth. Tally ho and all that rot.
(Musical Interlude: Cue Verdi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons )
The day dawns, birds are chirping. The house is looking about as good as I can make it—as long as no one opens a bedroom door or goes into the basement. I have a fridge full of prepared food. I have the makings of a dessert. I decide to get my hair cut and styled as a treat before the party. (I was not going to mess up that bathroom.) It was only when the stylist is getting out her blow dryer that I remembered I left the sandwiches in the freezer. Panicked, I text my mother-in-law to take them out. I just crossed my fingers and hoped they would thaw in time.
The hour before guests are to arrive, I discover to my dismay that, sometime in the night, the second cake I made had deflated into a dense, rubbery disc. This is where I learned that eating the failed efforts of the first cake meant I had nothing to fall back on! (By the way, it was flat—but delicious.) With no time to try for a third cake, I slice the vulcanized monstrosity and smother it in fruit and whipped cream and called it ‘Good Enough’.
Everyone was very complimentary. Despite the jam causing the heavy layers to slide apart and the whipped cream to squoosh out the sides when it was cut, the guests called the cake delicious. Which just goes to show—being polite sometimes requires a judicious amount of lying. I don’t regret trying something new. But next time I host a shindig, I am probably buying something instead. Or better yet, I’ll just watch Downton Abbey and laugh at all the perfection depicted.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Ask any bride who ever planned her “Dream Wedding” how it actually turned out. (Have a box of tissues ready just in case it turns out they are now getting a divorce.)
**The Victoria (meaning victorious) Sponge—most ironically named dessert of my baking career.
***Here is the recipe, if you feel lucky. Ask yourself, “Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?
Raspberry and Blackberry Victoria Sponge
For the sponge :
1 Cup (8 oz) softened unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
2 Cups (8 oz) self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
1 ¼ Cup (8 oz) 250 g caster Baker’s sugar
4 large free-range eggs
4 tablespoons good-quality raspberry jam
300g (about a cup 1/2 each) of fresh raspberries & blackberries, washed and dried.
Preheat your oven to 190°C/375°F/gas Grease two 20cm sandwich tins cake pans with butter, line the bases with greaseproof paper and dust lightly with flour.
Beat the butter and sugar together until very light and fluffy. A great tip is to stop when the mixture turns from being slightly yellow in color to almost white. Add the eggs one by one, making sure you beat each one in well before you add the next, then add the vanilla extract and the flour. Divide the cake mix between the prepared tins. Spread it out well with a spatula and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown and risen and a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool slightly, then carefully turn out on to a baking rack to cool completely.
Whip the cream with the vanilla bean paste and sugar until you get soft peaks- careful not to overbeat it though! Spread the jam and then the vanilla cream over one of the cakes. Place the second cake on top, spreading onto it a thin layer of whipped cream and decorating with alternating raspberries and blackberries. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.
***You Read This Far Bonus***
British Expressions You Need to Know:
Sandwich Tin = Cake Pan
Caster Sugar = Baker’s Sugar
8 oz = means different ‘effing’ sizes because it is a measure of weight not volume, you idiot. (Sorry, this is my dictionary so I get to say it like I mean it.) So 8oz of butter is one cup but 8 oz of flour is two cups. I hate math, have I mentioned this?
Self-raising Flour = Self-Rising Flour (and actually means that in high humidity, your cake is probably going to fall.)
Woe to the restaurant that finds me in a bad mood. Fortunately for Zeytin, a Turkish restaurant in Ada, Michigan, I was in fine fettle last Thursday. The food I consume can affect how I feel, but the reverse is also true. If I am in a great mood, everything tastes better.* Happiness is a spice all its own.
My friend, Kay, joined me for a belated birthday lunch celebration.** Kay and I are both enthusiastic ‘foodies’, while not necessarily qualified by training, we are experienced gourmands and picky about our palate and the foods we try. I like to utilize her taste buds because she will eat the meat dishes so I can tell you about them. And, before you cry foul, Kay is okay with this arrangement—the safe word is “Rocky Mountain Oysters”.
Kay, and I wrestled with the many choices of appetizers. So we ordered enough to feed a small army—or a house with teenagers. Soon plates of borek, spinach pie, and bowls of soup arrived along with a basket of very thin, cold pita and a generous bowl of tzatziki—called Cacik in Turkish. The yogurt dish was the favorite among the four we chose.
The Feta Borek—a deep-fried crispy roll filled with feta cheese—was the Turkish equivalent of a crab Rangoon, minus the crab. We both agreed, this was phenomenal. (Especially dunked in the cacik—everything is better with yogurt sauce on it.)
Next we had the stuffed grape leaves. Here Kay and I parted ways. Kay loved them, believing they were flavored with anise, I had reservations because of the odd and unexpected taste. When asked what the secret ingredient was our waiter admitted this was the one item on the menu that they did not make at the restaurant, but ordered in. My internal food detective went ‘Ah Hah!’ But I said nothing aloud; I like to savor my smugness along with my meal.
Kay and I both had reservations about the spinach pie. I am a huge fan of spanakopita (the Greek iteration of this dish) so I was a bit disappointed by the approach taken by the Turkish chef. Instead of getting a rolled, triangular packet stuffed with feta and spinach chopped in a good ratio, this came more as a lasagna-style serving—where the phyllo dough had a bottom and a top layer with a huge helping of spinach dotted with feta as a leaden center. This arrangement made the upper layers of phyllo a touch gluey. My research informed me that Phyllo, the thin, layered pastry, which I thought was a strictly Greek invention, actually originated in Istanbul. So, it was likely I ate the more traditional rendition of the dish. That said, I would still prefer my puffed savory to be a little more flaky and the proportions of dough to filling better measured to prevent the steam from collapsing all that delicately structured crust. Still, it tasted pretty good and it would beat most fast food restaurant food hands-down.
There is something entirely decadent about sitting in luxurious comfort sipping sweet tea in delicate glasses, chatting with a good friend. Our booth had colorful, thick cushions with a Turkish rug pattern and pillows at our backs, the music playing was soft and a woman sang with plaintive, if incomprehensible words, as we dined.
The only jarring note to the bright, clean establishment is the décor. Looking around we saw what looked like Southwestern paintings which veered very heavily near to something you might see painted on black velvet or found on a Thomas Kinkade Calendar—if he’d ever managed to escape the English village where he’s been held hostage for years churning out lilac-strangled cottages. Twisted iron chandeliers which mimicked the antlers of a many pronged, exotic animal prompted us to ask whether the owners had kept the previous establishment’s theme. The puzzled waiter replied, “No, this is all new with the restaurant.” Okay then. Since I inadvertently painted my basement to look like interior of a submarine, I cast no interior design stones. But be prepared if you go there.
Kay enjoyed her grilled lamb. (Which I would describe to you in detail if my son hadn’t stolen my notebook to create a Jackson Pollock inspired mess on his bedroom floor.) I loved my Turkish Delight—a mélange of veggies swimming in a delicious tomato-based stew on homemade hummus. I was surprised to find uniformly chopped carrots with the telling zigzag that screams ‘frozen veggie’ but, that said, the dish was fantastic.
I won’t quibble if they can make frozen food taste that good. We both thought that the presentation of the hors d’oeuvres on rough chopped iceberg lettuce with thin half-moon slices of tomato was underwhelming. My thought was that if they just added a nice, light lemon-olive oil vinaigrette and made it a side of the appetizer then it wouldn’t be such a waste of vegetation.
Friendship is the flavor which makes life worth savoring. I can laugh, joke and chew my meal and it has a gustatory pleasure you cannot recreate no matter how well cooked a dish is when eaten alone. Minor pet peeves aside—frozen veggies and a slightly too heavy emphasis on salt in many of the dishes—I suggest you run right out and dine at this hidden gem. Gustatory treasure hunters will not be disappointed.
Zeytin gets three out of four olives. It is a great place to go with friends. The meals are slightly higher in price than your average lunch fare, but then, the food is better. It is intended as a slower dining experience, has tables arranged in either booths, or two-to-four person settings with the possibility of reorganizing for larger groups. It looks to have a well-stocked bar for those who like a little aperitif with their meal. There are a few ‘American’ food options for kids (cheese burger/chicken nuggets) but adults had best be prepared to dine in Turkish style.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Apparently I am an emotional eater in more than one sense.
**Like we need an excuse to go to a good restaurant.
Hidden Soup Bonus:
If given a choice between the Lentil or Spinach Tomato soups, go with the latter. Unless you hate spinach–because it really does have a Popeye’s powerhouse vegetable flavor.
There is something about the call of battle that is so invigorating. At least, that’s what every science fiction novel has lead me to believe. Now I am more informed. War isn’t pretty. Not even a war covered in chocolate. I attended the Hobart Dessert Wars held at the Amway Grand Plaza Friday night. I was late to the event and my poor planning landed me in the fudge sauce right away. I had no idea how well attended the event would be. Too well attended. The line to get into the Ambassador Ballroom took at least twenty minutes—snaking in and around the foyer, through a back hall, around a bathroom (presumably to give you an opportunity before continuing the trek) and back around to the foyer again. By the time I got inside it was wall to wall with chocolate crazed donut lovers.
It was a sweet smelling madhouse. People wedged their way through the crowd, some holding up coveted box tops garnered at a dessert table to keep their trophies in. I was to learn to my sincere regret how necessary these shields of battle were. Because of the size of the room, they placed the tables all around the outside of the space with tiny, standing hors d’oeuvre tables draped with white tablecloths in the center. They were calm oases where one could set down their treasures and feast. But no one was doing that. It was a sadly long wait to get to each of the thirteen stations. (I was feeling quite cross, I can tell you.) After the first table, I knew I wasn’t going to make it unless I got ruthless.
At the first table I went to, The Melting Pot, which is a restaurant I have never been to because of the idea of drowning things in scalding chocolate has never appealed to me, I sidled my way to the edge, because the movement at the center was negligible, only to discover that they were only serving at the front. I managed to throw down a ticket and snag a dessert myself—the harried servers barely blinked at my chocolate ballsy theft. I turned away cackling in triumph only to have my victory dashed away by the plate of cubed brownies and pound cake with fudge sauce and strawberry slices flying out of my hands and splatting on the floor. (We won’t discuss the five second rule and the possible application thereof. I had waited a long time to get to that dessert.) That said, the brownie was definitely the best part of that arrangement.
I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sample everything, so every once in a while, I’d stop someone to get a picture of their food or their impressions of the event. The consensus was that the venue was too crowded to make the experience pleasurable. I met Cathy with her grandson, Adam, in line. Cathy told me people were leaving because of it. She was harried by the stress of the battle for bite-sized vittles, but she was one of the people I saw at the close of the event. What a grandmother won’t do for her grandkids!
I learned a few lessons from the veterans in attendance. People who had been to past Dessert Wars came prepared. Some had baking cupcake tins to pop their samples into, others came as teams, with one person hitting a few stations, collecting five or more samples and then they would converge somewhere else to divide the spoils.
Opinions on the quality of the entries differed. Some people had nothing but good things to say. I spoke with 7-year-old Tessa who, when asked agreed that she was definitely an ‘expert in desserts’. In her opinion, she liked the chocolate truffle the best…until she tasted the chocolate red velvet ice cream cookie. That immediately became her favorite. “It was better than the truffle.” She said.
Others held more reserved judgment of the event. Ruthanne – who is not pictured except for her hands—felt that what the Melting Pot served wasn’t really appropriate to a “Dessert Wars” theme. “They didn’t make it from scratch.” She went on to say that they simply cut up brownies and cake. “I could do that!” No, she felt that the winner should be someone like the Love’s Ice Cream because they constructed a dessert on the site. The official judges must have agreed. The ice cream/cream puff swans took second place. As it was one of the desserts I got to try, I had to agree. It was worth the hassle and fuss of fighting my way to the front. Despite the chaos and disappointment of not getting to try many of the sponsored delights, there was a heady thrill of getting the last puffed pastry (or piece of carrot cake, in my case) and walking away a champion in the sweets arena. To the victor the just desserts.
I was entirely impressed with the bakeries and restaurants that participated. They kept their cool in the face of crises. When swans took too long to prepare, the basic cream puffs were handed out so that people could at least try them. The Melting Pot was the last table standing…scraping the pot for fudge sauce even after the competition was officially over. At tables where I was too late to sample the wares, the assistants proudly showed off cell phone pictures and rattled off the many entries offered. It definitely was incentive to go out and try these establishments at a later date. There were many winners that evening. Winners for people’s choice: 3rd place was a tie: Twisted Rooster and the Melting Pot 2nd place was “Sprinkles” 1st place was Robinette’s Judge’s decision 3rd place Robinette’s 2nd place Love’s Ice Cream 1st place Town to Town The real winners were the area food pantry “Kids’ Food Basket” which benefitted in part from the proceeds of the event. It is good to know, we all went to bed slightly sick with over-indulgence for a good cause.
* * * * *
Bonus: How to Make a Cream Puff Swan
There were too many choices and competitors to all list here. There are many great sites where each competitor’s entries may be found. Here’s a list of the entrants and a link to their entries:
(FRUSHI – fruit roll-up sushi with sweet rice and fresh fruit.)
Frushi—Fruit Sushi is a hybrid fusion dessert taking the concept of ‘sushi’ in a new direction. I managed to get a lovely picture of the promoted items, but again, I was too late to sample the elaborate constructions. The basic ingredients were fruit roll ups, sweet sticky rice with vanilla, fresh fruit and dehydrated pineapple and they were served with a sauce which I was assured could go on anything! It looked convincingly enough like soy sauce to fool me. I was told it was vanilla, honey and balsamic vinegar though with a plop of “Wasabi” in the form of ground pistachio paste.
Cookie bars that were called Tiramisu. Complicated ingredients made it hard to identify all of their choices. I tried three of the cookie bars and the fruit option was the best. They were not as elegantly served, but they were generous portion sizes.
(Won First Place in People’s Choice awards and Third Place in Judge’s Choice. Came bearing cartloads of their signature donuts: apple cider, cinnamon & sugar, chocolate covered chocolate, chocolate with sprinkles, red velvet, black forest, s’mores, lemon, chocolate almond (or coconut almond…I couldn’t read my handwriting on account of the drool.)
Sara’s Sweets was out of cupcakes by the time I got to the table. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, I am bound to fall in love with their menu. They brought a mother load worth of cupcakes. And from the screen shot on one baker’s broken iPhone, I could see I missed out. Almond, mint chocolate, strawberry shortcake, peanut butter, raspberry filled white cake, snickers, buckeyes and frosted cookies were among their treasures.
I may have to look this place up, or I’ll feel bereft.
Apparently served a prickle pear mojito dessert, but alas, I was too late. I did however get a scrumptious serving of peanut butter, snickers cupcake that was incredible. The burst of peanut butter when you bit into the fluffy frosting was astonishingly good. And, since I am not a fan of peanut butter, that’s saying something.
Let me just tell you that cupcakes were the most popular items at the Dessert Wars competition. I know, because every time I got to a table, they were already gone. Sprinkles apparently served chocolate ganache, toffee and peanut butter creme cupcakes, Devil Dogs and Sprinkle Puffs. I saw these go by. I could cry, I tell you. Took Second Place in People’s Choice Award.
By the time I made my way through they only had the puff pastry curl with Holland crème. I have always had a fondness for cream horns—also called cream curls— when I was a girl. I used to call them unicorn horns. These were perfect examples. Light airy, cylindrical pastry filled with a yummy cream filling. I won’t argue with the judges who gave them First Place.
Another shot glass entry came from Twister Rooster. This was describe to me as a ‘Tiramisu’ style dessert made of peanut butter mousse, with strawberry and raspberry jelly using a ladyfinger cookie as a ‘spoon’. Sounded intriguing–snapped up before I could even sniff it. It was popular enough to share Third Place in the People’s Choice award.
Asterisk Bedazzle Footnote:
*The title of this piece is the battle cry coined by me and a fellow patron when I nearly upset my dessert tray a second time.