Thursday, December 24, 2009

Pumpkin Pie Tartlets

When baking a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, I found I had some dough and filling left over. I took out a muffin tin and baked a few miniature pies, which turned out really well, so I made them again for our Christmas Eve shindig.

I used the pumpkin pie recipe from Domestic Sluttery (plus a dash of a few extra spices—cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves), and my favorite pie crust (from A Platter of Figs by David Tanis). The crust is very simple: 2 cups flour, 2 sticks butter, one egg beaten with enough ice water to make 3/4 cup, 1/2 teaspoon salt, refrigerate for one hour.

And just for convenience (the Domestic Sluttery recipe uses metric measurements), here's the list of filling ingredients for us Americans:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon each of ginger, nutmeg, and cardamom, plus a dash of cloves
2 eggs
1.5 cups pumpkin puree
one 14-oz. tin of evaporated milk
With the oven preheating at 425º, I used a rolling pin and then cut out the tiny crusts with the lip of a drinking glass. (They'll pop out easily, so no need to grease the muffin tin.) They bake at 425º for the first 15 minutes, then at 350º for another 35-40 minutes. Yields about two dozen pumpkin pie tartlets.

These would make a fantastic dessert for a seasonal cocktail party. Also, hardly anybody ate the pie at Thanksgiving, so it sat in the fridge for several days before we finished it—this might sound weird, but I think portion-sized pies are more hygienic.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Then & Now

The field behind our house, 17 September 2009:

The field behind our house, 20 December 2009:
(Both of these pictures were taken around 4pm.)

And look at this drift outside my bedroom window—isn't it beautiful?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Great Book #70: Suite Française

I remember the literary hubbub surrounding the English-language publication of Suite Française in the summer of 2006: the trade paperback was stacked on the front table of every bookstore I walked into, with that melancholy tinted black-and- white cover photo of a couple —in a crowded city square, a single suitcase at their feet—who clearly have no idea where they'll lay their heads tonight.

Irène Némirovsky was a Parisian Catholic (of Russian-Jewish extraction) who died at Auschwitz in August 1942 at the age of 39, and this unfinished novel wasn't discovered until the author's daughter started going through her notebooks in the 1990s. I've been listening to the audiobook while I knit, and I understand why the critics have called it a masterpiece: the prose is beautiful, clear and unaffected, and it's remarkable that Némirovsky could cast such cool, keen eye on something so horrible that was happening in real time—the story reads like it was written with the benefit of many years' hindsight.

Most of the characters are intensely unlikable, and in their flight from Paris they resemble rats on a sinking ship. Only the Michauds—humble, hardworking, and sick with worry over the fate of their son—are characters we can get behind. The Michauds are the only men in the book who don’t trample on others to save their own skins; unlike the other men, Maurice Michaud doesn’t consider himself irreplaceable.

Yet there are occasional moments of grace: a refugee crouching in a ditch during an air raid notices a white butterfly flitting among the wildflowers; a mother holds her child so tightly it seems as if she wants to put the baby back into her womb, the only safe place; a young woman tends to a wounded soldier during “the summer they were 20, in spite of everything.”

These moments are rare, however. The book is divided in two (the “suite” being unfinished): “A Storm in June” follows a bunch of miserly, hypocritical Parisian snobs as they flee the city, and “Dolce” observes a community of superstitious farm wives, including two young women locked into cold and loveless marriages. The novel’s prevailing attitude can be encapsulated by Hubert Péricand, who leaves his family a foolhardy teenager eager to see battle, and returns to them a cynical young man:
The people around him, his family, his friends, aroused a feeling of shame and rage within him. He had seen them on the road, them and people like them: he recalled the cars full of officers running away with their beautiful yellow trunks and their painted women, civil servants abandoning their posts, panic-stricken politicians dropping files of secret papers along the road, young girls, who had diligently wept the day the armistice was signed, being comforted in the arms of the Germans. “And to think that no one will know, that there were will be such a conspiracy of lies that all this will be transformed into yet another glorious page in the history of France. We’ll do everything we can to find acts of devotion and heroism for the official records. Good God! To see what I've seen! Closed doors where you knock in vain to get a glass of water and refugees who pillaged houses; everywhere, everywhere you look, chaos, cowardice, vanity and ignorance! What a wonderful race we are!”
Living (and dying) the way she did, witnessing all that she did, it’s no wonder Némirovsky’s characters are either selfish bastards or misanthropes. From the preface to the French edition: "She had absolutely no illusions, not about the attitude of the inert French masses—'loathsome' in their defeat and collaboration—nor about her own fate." She refused to stop writing even when the rest of the French publishing industry were rolling over for the Nazis, and she knew they would eventually murder her for it.

There is a violent act towards the end of "A Storm in June" that disturbed me so much I had to stop listening for a couple of months (I started the book in early October). I don't want to tell you what happened that so turned my stomach, in case this novel is on your list, but suffice it to say my mother will not be reading Suite Française. The passage in question is one of the most shocking things I have ever read.

I get that war is hell and it brings out the very worst in people, but doesn’t it also, if only occasionally, bring out the very best? There were plenty of people who didn’t wish to survive at the cost of their humanity; not every person in France was apathetic, not everyone was a collaborator; just because the word “heroism” is grossly overused doesn’t mean there are no heroes. We see virtually none of that in Suite Française because that wasn't the author's experience; but I imagine it's rather difficult to give your characters a happy ending when you know your own will be anything but.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Patternmaking with Cal Patch

I'm trying to improve my sewing skills, so to that end I signed up for a patternmaking workshop at the Brooklyn General Store last Sunday. There wasn't actually any sewing involved (yet)—you take your own measurements and plot them on newsprint paper to make a pattern for a jersey t-shirt. As it turned out, I was the only person who showed up for the class, so I basically got a private lesson with the marvelous Cal Patch.

Cal has recently published Design-It-Yourself Clothes: Patternmaking Simplified, which I really wanted to buy on the spot, but I must sheepishly confess that I can't bring myself to pay full price for a book when I can get a discount online. (Cal is totally cool with this, and she feels the same way; authors receive the same percentage whether you pay the list price or get 40% off. It turns out we're both published by Crown/Random House, and we talked about how the titles on the Potter Craft list have gotten much better in the last couple of years. Her book being proof of that, of course!) I'm planning to use some of my Christmas loot to order myself a copy.

Her book is full of patterns that are fresh and modern without being trendy, and they're designed so you can easily modify them to suit your own taste and measurements. It was raining hard when we left Brooklyn General, but I was feeling really cheerful and inspired despite having no umbrella. Cal is a great teacher, and I highly recommend taking a class with her.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


My aunt, grandparents and I baked a ton of cookies last Friday: chocolate chip, anisette toast (same thing as biscotti), almond cookies filled with raspberry jam, snickerdoodles (recipe forthcoming)...and the prettiest cookies of all, pizzelles. You can buy them in a plastic tub at the grocery store, but as with everything else in life, the homemade kind is infinitely better. Here are a few shots of my grandfather baking pizzelles using a waffle iron that's at least sixty years old.

'Fante's, 1006 E. 9th St., Phila. PA'

He melts some butter on the iron, drops a gob of dough on, closes it, and leaves it on the open flame for twenty seconds or so, flipping the iron midway through and cooking for another twenty seconds.

It takes up to ten minutes for the iron to get good and hot, so the first half dozen cookies weren't golden brown like they ideally would be.

Here's my grandparents' recipe, should you like to try your hand with an electric iron like this one (or look for an old-school iron on eBay, knock yourself out):
6 eggs
3 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tbsp. vanilla or anise
1/2 lb. butter or margarine
half orange rind and juice
Whisk eggs and add sugar gradually, beating until smooth. Add cooled butter and flavoring. Sift flour and baking powder together and add to egg mixture. Dough should be sticky enough to drop by spoonful.

My crazy 84-year-old grandfather doubled this recipe and stood at the stove for four and a half hours without a break, baking these pizzelles one at a time, blithely ignoring our pleas for him to sit down and rest. Crazy, I tell you.

They taste great with eggnog.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

the Aran sweater myth

(Teach Synge, Inis Meáin.)

I'm always embarrassed to discover a mistake in my guidebook. I may be well traveled in Ireland but I'm certainly no expert, and I am aching to get back to work on the revision so I can correct all the gaffes I've found so far. (Alas, it's been postponed indefinitely because of the economy.)

The latest error concerns the Aran sweater myth, which is so pervasive that it was even included in some of the cultural history books I used for reference. I propagated it thusly on page 339:
In John Millington Synge's heart-wrenching one-act play set on the Aran Islands, Riders to the Sea, a young woman realizes that the clothes of a drowned fisherman (found on the shores of Donegal, and buried there) are those of her missing brother when she notices the stitch she herself dropped while knitting his socks. Art imitates life on these islands, for each family used a unique pattern when knitting pullovers (called báinín, "baw-NEEN") for their fishermen in the all-too-likely event that one should be lost at sea.

You probably won't see any shawls, crios (woolen belts), mairtíní (stockings sans feet), or other traditional garb outside the Aran museum, though the scarves and gloves sold in the shops are no less cozy for their lack of authenticity. Of course, the most popular seller remains the fisherman's sweater, knit in the traditional unbleached wool or a variety of jewel-toned yarns, but you have to wonder if the sweater pattern used by Sarah Flaherty and other speedy native knitters is one designed specially for the tourists.

Otherwise, as Pat Boran wryly notes, Aran jerseys are "now worn almost exclusively by German hippies, University College Dublin science students, and on RTE soap operas."
This story (about cable patterns being used to identify drowned fishermen) was circulated by the head of an Aran knitwear company in the 1930s. Kate Davies, the very talented knitwear designer and textile historian, has enlightened me here. (The distinction must also be made between a family cable pattern (false) and identifying one's own handiwork.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sinkhole Alley (First Month's Free!)

I haven't had all that much to say lately; most of my knitting projects are for Christmas and therefore top-secret, and I'm still stalled on my reading list thanks to an incredibly disturbing scene in Suite Française. (Yes, it is a book about war, but this scene horrified me for a different reason. I'll persevere, and tell you more about it once I've finished.)

My research reading is going swimmingly, however, and I thought you might enjoy this excerpt from Chapters of Dublin History:
Close by Old Church Street on the west were three streets worthy of some notice. The first was the Hangman's Lane, a name naturally not much relished by the inhabitants, and consequently corrupted into Hammond Lane, which it is still called.

In the same way Bumbailiff's Lane, off New Street, on the south side, became the meaningless Fumbally's Lane. There was another Hangman's Lane from Kimmage to Dolphin's Barn, where Tom Calvin, the hangman of '98, is said to have lived. It is now called the Dark Lane. Dublin also contained such names as Cutthroat Lane, Murdering Lane, Cutpurse Row (Corn Market), Hell, near Christ Church, flog Hill (St. Andrew Street), The Common Lane (Watery Lane, now Brookfield Avenue), Gallows Road, Gallows Hill, Gibbet Meadow, Dirty Lane (Bridgefoot Street and Temple Lane South), Dunghill Lane (Island Street) and Pinchgut Lane. Some 18th century street-names were even coarser; yet, they were the recognised official names, figuring in postal addresses, and found in maps and directories. The age of refinement was yet to come, and it has already reached its extreme point in renaming Dublin streets and lanes.
How'd you like to live on Dunghill Lane?? It was actually on the map--that's what really gets me!