What I wanted to be when I grew up

I have an egg carton of lettuce, zucchini, and sweet pepper seeds growing on the window sill.  And I have a couple heirloom tomato plants coming in April from a local shop.  The early appearance of spring this year kind of rushed me into my vegetable growing.  I barely had time to buy seeds and stick them in dirt-filled egg shells before the trees and tulips started blossoming.  It has been quite a month.  I attended a beekeeping workshop early in March, getting ready for the arrival of our bees in April (!).  And last week I found myself at an urban chicken keeping class in my neighborhood - a bunch of eager and naive chicken enthusiasts trying to figure out how to bring the farm to the city.

What is it with all of the interest in growing and raising and keeping?  There's definitely something in my generation that has us all scrambling for ways to live a new (old) way.  Is it that we've been inundated with so much advancement and technology that we're desperate for something to touch and smell and work for? Have we so separated ourselves from each other and the earth that we can't help but want to raise chickens in our apartments?

It's funny, actually, because when I was little, I told everyone I wanted to be a farmer when I grew up (just ask my parents).  Which was so not cool at the time.  I was supposed to want to be a teacher or a marine biologist.  But farming?  Come on.  I lived in the suburbs of Chicago!  I couldn't help myself.  Every minute I got, I was out in the "woods" behind our house, channeling the spirits of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jo March.  Then I grew up, grew out of my overalls and beat up Converse shoes, moved, went to school, saw the world.  I had to find a more realistic idea of "what I want to be when I grow up," like "artist" or "writer" is somehow closer to that realism.  After all that, now I find myself somewhat back where I started.  Maybe not exactly "farmer" in the present day sense - unlike my farming friend Al, I don't want the air-conditioned office of a John Deere tractor.  How 'bout just a sustainable farm with a garden, a chicken coop, and a couple beehives?  Maybe trade with neighbors for what we don't have, like the Kingsolver family did in Animal Vegetable Miracle?  I love their story.  I'd be happy with that.  And I love the story of these two unlikely farmers on Long Island - learning to farm and yield an unlikely harvest against all odds.

I know I'm not the only one.  I guess we're all anxious for ways to live more simply, more connected to what we eat and buy and why.  Maybe it's got something to do with our longing for authenticity.  Living in a way that is true, dependable, and whole.

Maybe all the abundance and excess of our cultural habits has us pining for what was.  We have lost some of the beauty of the communal process of cultivating and eating together.

In his eater's manifesto, Michael Pollan writes, "We forget that, historically, people have eaten for a great many reasons other than biological necessity.  Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity.  As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology."


Why we sing

I've been thinking a lot about music lately.  There's this unique thing that happens in a church - people sing collectively.  This doesn't really happen naturally or regularly in any other life situation.  There's something about entering a sacred space that somehow enables people to sing, and not just sing, but sing together.  It's quite amazing, really, and incredibly beautiful.  

I heard a teaching on "why we sing" several years ago that has stuck with me.  I often think of it on a Sunday morning when I am struggling to sing, battling tiredness, sadness, distraction, or unrest.  I actually love to sing.  It feels good.  And I wish I played an instrument.  But like most people, I like to sing songs that I like, songs that I know.  I have my favorites and my not-so-favorites.  So, this is what I remember:

Those of you who love to sing - sing.  Because you are also singing for those who are unable.  Your voice is their voice, you are their representative.

Those of you who don't love to sing - find some way to engage.  In your own place and out of your own brokenness find a way in which to take part.

I have to remind myself that it's not about whether or not I like the music.  That doesn't matter.  Singing is about a shared experience.  It is outside of my personal preference.  It is about worship.  It's not even so much about my time of worship as our time of worship. Singing together is a "culturally subversive act of mutual submission."  

There's  this psalm.*  "A song.  For the Sabbath day."  
"What a beautiful thing, God, to give thanks, to sing an anthem to you, the High God!  
To announce your love each daybreak, sing your faithful presence all through the night, 
Accompanied by dulcimer and harp, the full-bodied music of strings.

For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord; I sing for joy at what your hands have done."

In the psalm, the singing, the music-making has nothing do to with me, or with you.  It's completely and utterly about the Creator.  Singing for joy at what his hands have made. 

I was talking about this with my friend Lizzy.  She shared a word she had heard recently on music and worship:

Music is one of the things God's given us to help us in our worship.  
Music speaks to the reality of who God is.

I believe this to be true in all forms of music.  Yes, on a Sunday morning or a Saturday evening or whenever you collectively worship.  But also, on my daily run, with my favorite Mumford and Sons song.  In the car, on the radio, with that great new song.  Or at home, in the everyday, the routine, the solitary moment of worship.

There's this amazing scene in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption."  If you've seen it, you probably already know the scene I'm talking about.  The character Andy commandeers the warden's PA system and plays Mozart's duet, the Marriage of Figaro, for all of Shawshank Prison to hear, and it most certainly speaks to the reality of who God is.   

"I have no idea to this day, what those two Italian ladies were singing about.  The truth is, I don't want to know.  Some things are best left unsaid.  I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words, it makes your heart ache because of it.  I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares dream.  It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away.  For the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free."

And so we sing.  The poet John O'Donohue said, "Music is what language would love to be if it could." We sing because language isn't enough.  Because it has the ability to penetrate the grey places.  

If we can all come together and breathe at the same time, pause at the same moment, speak words together, and all affirm the hope, love, and forgiveness...then what else can we do together?  Then music becomes a metaphor, and all sorts of things are possible.

*Psalm 92, from the Message and NIV Bibles
Special thanks to Rob Bell and Joseph Tenney for their words on worship.


One for the books

Remember when I made that list of intentions for the year?  Something about a rumpus and a pistachio cake?  Well, the occasion for that divine cake finally made itself known!  I have this lovely group of friends who host a wine and dine party every spring - each family or individual brings a dish with a wine pairing to share.  We've been doing this for years now and every year it gets better, everyone determined to out-do what they did last year. I enlisted for dessert this year, with this cake in mind.  I knew that if ever I was to find an occasion and a company that would most appreciate the harmony of flavors in this cake, it was this one.  

My own expectations were pretty high, having dreamt about making and eating this cake for quite some time now.  I went to my neighborhood Trader Joe's for dried black mission figs for the compote and shelled pistachios for the cake.  I did some research on dessert and wine pairings and discovered that generally you want your wine to be sweeter than your dessert.  This cake isn't all that sweet and with such a complexity of flavors, I needed a wine that would do it justice.  After talking with the TJ's wine guy, I settled on a lightly bubbly pink Moscato.  Not only was it beautiful, it was perfect with my cake.  

I made the fig compote ahead of time, using local honey from last year's harvest.  I started to get nervous while making the cake, suddenly doubting the lack of sweetness and if people would really like figs or if it would just make them think of their grandma's prunes.  The pistachio cake is made with olive oil, so it has a savory quality to it, and the oils from the pistachios can have a slightly bitter after-taste.  Like most first times I make a recipe, I was nervous.  I made a one and a half times batch so I could bake off a 10" cake, but I ended up with more than enough fig compote (PB + Fig anyone?).  The cake didn't rise much at all, one more thing to be worried about. 

Boy, was I wrong with all that worrying.  The cake was dense and moist and lovely.  It sliced beautifully for the filling.  Nutty, with the mysterious flavor of olive oil, and naturally sweet with the figs and honey.  The cream cheese frosting was the perfect amount of creamy sweetness to pull it all together.  And, it was beautiful.  The pink Moscato was simply divine in between bites, just enough clean and sweet and bubbly to complement the web of flavors.  My wine and dine mates even named it "best pairing."  A special thanks to the Trader Joe's wine guy for the wine suggestion, and a huge thanks to my friend Lizzy for passing on this recipe long ago.

I love to garnish with elements that are actually in a recipe, so I was happy to top the cake with a few spare nuts and figs.  I think of it as a nod to the figs and pistachios for being so great and also a cue to the eater for what's in the cake.

So if you come across an occasion or excuse for a pistachio fig cake, I implore you to make this one.  You won't regret it, and neither will your eaters.

Pistachio Olive Oil Cake with Fig Compote Filling and Cream Cheese Frosting
(adapted from Ming Thompson's recipe found here, also her photos of the cake are gorgeous, I couldn't attempt to compete with them)

Fig Compote Filling
1.5 c. whole dried figs (I used Black Mission Figs)
1.5 c. water
the juice of one orange (about 1/3 c.)
a couple dashes of salt
2 T. honey

Chop the figs into small chunks, removing any stems.  Cook in a saucepan with water, orange juice, and salt until figs are soft and water is evaporated, about 20 minutes.  Add honey and cook for a minute more.  Let cool.

Pistachio Olive Oil Cake
1 c. shelled pistachios
1 c. flour
1.5 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
3/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil 
1/2 c. milk
2 eggs
2 t. lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease and flour a 8x8 baking pan, line the bottom with a square of parchment paper (to ensure it comes out in one piece).  

Pulse pistachios in a food processor until the texture of coarse sand.  Combine ground pistachios, flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a bowl.  Stir until well combined.  Add oil and milk.  Beat with an electric mixer until blended.  Add eggs and lemon juice, beat until mixed.

Pour batter into prepared pan.  Bake for about 35 minutes, until edges are lightly brown and inserted knife comes out clean.  Let cool.

Cream Cheese Frosting
1/2 stick butter, at room temp
4 oz. cream cheese
2 c. confectioners sugar

Mash all the ingredients together until roughly combined.  Beat with an electric mixer on high until smooth and creamy.

Once cool, slice cake in half horizontally using a serrated knife.  Remove top layer and spoon fig filling onto bottom layer, spreading evenly.  Replace top layer and frost with cream cheese frosting.  Garnish with additional figs and pistachios.  


It's hard to go back

One of the traditions that I love around Easter is hot cross buns.  Most bakeries make them this time of year, but I've got a stand-up hot cross bun recipe from the bread book that has taught me so much in the past year.  I love this book.  I may have told you already, but for a while, I was just checking it out of the library, renewing it, bringing it back, checking it out, renewing it, etc.  I may very well be the only person to have checked it out.  And yes, those are my flour granules and doughy fingerprints in there.  I finally got my own copy for my birthday.  

I love this recipe because it is super simple and super delicious.  I made a double batch last week to bring to work, and our house smelled like a bakery.  When that apricot glaze hits those warm, spice-induced buns, it lets off this crazy good aroma that will make you want to break into one before it even gets crossed (totally legit).  You can make these any time of year, really, and just leave the crosses off, but they definitely have a season of their own.  They are great for breakfast or a snack, but I've been known to make it into a sandwich with a slice of cheese or two.  Last year I made a ridiculous size batch of buns for our family's Easter dinner, served right alongside the spiral ham and sweet potato casserole.  And, they were a hit.  Beware:  once you start the tradition of homemade hot cross buns, it's hard to go back.

Adapted from the River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens
Makes 8

2 c. white bread flour
2 c. all-purpose white flour
1/2 c. warm water
1/2 c. warm milk
1 1/2 t. instant yeast
2 t. fine salt
3 1/2 T. sugar
1 egg
3 1/2 T. butter
2/3 c. raisins, currents, or golden raisins
Finely grated zest of 1/2 orange
1/4 heaping t. each of cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice

To finish:
1 T apricot jam
1 T water

For the crosses:
icing sugar
juice of an orange (or milk)

Combine the flours, water, milk,  yeast, salt, and sugar in a bowl or stand mixer (fit with dough hook).  Add the egg and butter and mix to a sticky dough.  Add the dried fruit, orange zest, and spices and knead on low speed (or by hand) until silky and smooth. Dough will be sticky to handle.  Cover the dough (at this point, you can cover and refrigerate overnight, to be shaped and baked the next day - the dough will rise slowly in the refrigerator) and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, until doubled in size.

Deflate the risen dough and divide into 8 equal pieces.  Shape into rounds and dust with flour.  Place on a floured board, cover with plastic wrap or linen, and let proof for about 30 minutes, until roughly doubled in size.  I like to egg wash (yolk + splash of water) my rolls for added moisture before proofing and because working at a bakery has taught me to egg wash everything (but don't bother flouring and egg washing your buns...then you just have a sticky paste).  Also, to speed up the proofing process (especially if your dough is cold), in lieu of a proofer, I create my own little "proofer" by turning the oven on for a minute or two, at it's lowest possible temp, just to heat up a bit.  Then I put a pan of hot, steaming water in the bottom and slide my board of lovely egg washed rolls onto the grate (be sure it's not TOO hot!).  All that moisture and heat will help these suckers plump beautifully!

Once they're near doubled in size, remove rolls from the "proofer" (ie. oven) and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Give the beauties another egg wash, so they turn out golden brown and shiny.  Gently transfer the risen buns to a baking sheet or stone and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the jam with water in a bowl or pan, and run it through a sieve.  Brush over the buns to glaze as you take them from the oven.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool. While the buns are cooling, make your icing for the crosses, mixing icing sugar and a couple tablespoons of fresh orange juice (from that orange you just zested!) or milk until the right consistency.  You want it thin enough to pipe, but thick enough so that it won't drip all over.  Fill a piping bag or plastic sandwich bag with the icing and snip a small opening in the corner.  Pipe the crosses onto the cooled buns.  Serve warm if at all possible with a dab of butter or a wedge of good cheese.  Your neighbors will come calling.