30 November, 2011

Operation Domestic Goddess : Fruitcake

 I have often thought that there are entirely too many raisins in the world.  Making fruitcake for the first time did not help endear them to me. 

Fruitcake is a multi-step process that requires some advance planning.  First, all the fruit soaks in brandy (or whatever form of alcohol you're using) overnight...or over two nights if, like we did, you forget about it because you tucked the bowl in an obscure corner.  This is going to be one potent fruitcake.

Next, you make a proper cake batter and stir in the boozy fruit.  After mixing everything together according to Nigella's instructions, we were really concerned that there was nowhere near enough dough to hold all that fruit.  It was just a mass of raisins with a bit of batter binding them together.  We decided to not trust Nigella on this one, and added another cup of flour.  I think this was a good decision; the final product looked more like a cake and less like a raisin landslide.

After baking the cake, you brush more brandy over the top, wrap it up tightly, and promptly set it aside for several weeks.  My authoritative sources over at Wikipedia tell me that the alcohol helps prevent mold, and that the flavor of the cake obviously improves with aging.  Since we plan to give this particular cake away as a Christmas gift, I guess we'll never know...

25 November, 2011

Thanksgiving abroad

Five kernels of corn
 My inner (okay, it's not really that well-hidden) history geek almost exploded from excitement when I realized that this year, although far from my loved ones, I was celebrating Thanksgiving in the very part of London from which the Mayflower originally embarked!  Its captain, Christopher Jones, is also buried in an unmarked grave in a churchyard nearby.  It seemed very appropriate to share this American tradition with new English friends as well as fellow expats. 

This is the first time I've been responsible for almost the entire Thanksgiving menu, and I've never been away from my loved ones while preparing it.  But I still felt somewhat connected to them, because I used favorite recipes inherited from my mother, cousin, and friend, and I thought of each one of those women as I prepared the dishes they introduced to me.  There was my cousin Carlie's oyster dressing, which she made for my family the year that my dad suffered a spinal cord injury.  My parents had been in Atlanta for weeks before Thanksgiving, undergoing therapy and preparing for adjusting to life in "the real world" with new limitations.  They were due to fly back home on Thanksgiving Day, arriving just in time for dinner.  Sweet Carlie drove up from Virginia with a magnificent feast and thorough instructions for the items that would need some assembly.  We were all in such an emotionally fragile state that the enormity of her gift can't really be described.  That was the first time I'd even heard of oyster dressing, and I know that it will now only and always ever remind me of Carlie's generosity and that special Thanksgiving.

There were my friend Bonnie's legendary green beans.  Bonnie is an amazing cook.  I think she and Ina Garten would be friends!  Every Sunday for many years Bonnie would put out a veritable smorgasbord of Southern comfort food at its finest, showing rightfully uninhibited delight in each dish and the stories behind them, exhorting each guest to "Please go back, y'all, there's plenty more!"  And there always was plenty, and there always was a great deal of laughter.  After eating we would take a walk around the block to avoid succumbing to a post-feast coma, but upon re-entering the house we'd discover a further bounty of desserts, coffee, and more conversation.  Bonnie's green beans have become a particularly cherished favorite...You just have to forbid yourself from feeling any guilt about the fact that they involve bacon and bacon grease...

Finally, there was my mother's zucchini bread.  When I was a child, my mom would always bake two loaves of "zuke bread" before visiting her parents.  One loaf for us, one for grandpa.  It was grandpa's favorite, and no one in the world could get a crust just like my mom's.  She's bewildered when we ask what her secret is, assuring us that she doesn't do anything special, but I haven't been able to replicate it.  Making it makes me think of her and her father.  I didn't get to know him very well before Alzheimer's disease drew him away from us, so I'm glad to share something he loved.  Zucchini bread has been a staple of holiday meals in the Heidel home for as long as I can remember, and I intend it be a staple in my home, too. 

This year in London there were 8 of us at the table: 6 Americans and 2 Brits, old friends and new.  We introduced the Brits to classics such as candy corn, pumpkin pie, and the ever-classy cranberry sauce from a can.  We told the story of the five kernels of corn and shared things for which we are thankful.  We laughed a lot.  And I gave thanks for God's perpetual faithfulness in surrounding us with fellowship however far from home we go.

Easy herb-rubbed turkey (I really just used this as a reference point; I was willfully heavy-handed with Herbs de Provence.  Let me tell you, the flat smelled like heaven.)
Cousin Carlie's oyster dressing
Dead Simple Gravy (Not only was it really dead simple, it was a little nod to the Brits since it calls for Marmite!)
Bonnie's green beans
Mom's zucchini bread
Butternut squash risotto (my friend Jess brought this dish, something she basically made up as she went along!  Super impressive, but also sad because it means there's no written recipe for me to steal...)
Pumpkin pie with whipped cream

14 November, 2011

The Best of Both Worlds

Alison Krauss, London, 11/13/11
Last night I went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear Alison Krauss & Union Station.  It was such an entertaining marriage of my two worlds.  Emanating from the stage was the most infectious, soul-stirring, toe-tapping, clap-inducing American music; looking out over the very British audience, I saw polite heads timidly bobbing back and forth, palms softly tapping on knees in time with the beat, smiles threatening to give way to grins.  They loved it; they just couldn't - or didn't - let loose the way an American bluegrass audience might.  At the end of each and every song, though, massive waves of appreciation spilled forth in applause and cheers.  Each time, I heard the English couple sitting next to me and my friend breath sighs of astonishment and relish, uttering "Wow" as they clapped.  The audience's reserve was partly just a cultural difference -- we're not in Kentucky anymore, Toto -- but I believe it was also simply the awed, adoring stillness that is sometimes the only appropriate response to excellence.

When it was all over, the couple next to me and my friend stood and turned to us.  The man looked at us very thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "What a wonderful gift your country has given us.  Marvelous." 

I laughed.  "Yes, we get a few things right now and then."  What I thought about later was the irony that we wouldn't be able to give the gift of bluegrass if we hadn't first received the gift of British folk music, brought to our shores by migrants with centuries of stories and melodies to share.  The best we can do is riff on what has been sung and played before, adding grace notes of thanks for the possibilities handed down to us.

12 November, 2011

In Which I Go on a Pilgrimage

Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small, and white, and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green...
- Prologue to "The Earthly Paradise," William Morris

Today I visited Red House, the home of William Morris.  Morris was my "first love" in art and design history...I guess you could call this beauty-seeking, story-loving Socialist my historical crush.  In his work, writings, and ideals I found so many things that resonated with me: a love of story, a craving for beauty, a delight in honest design, and a desire for the marriage of beauty and utility.  "My work is the embodiment of dreams," he said at one point; yet he wanted those dreams to be realized very practically in the lives of ordinary people, giving the commonest of common men access to beautiful, useful, well-made things.

I took the train from "the hideous town" to Bexleyheath, which I must assume was "small, and white, and clean" countryside in Morris's day.  Today it is, honestly, a drab, nondescript little town full of drab, nondescript little houses.  Walking from the train station, I wondered to myself what Morris would think if he saw it today.

Red House
I turned off of Red House Lane and the house appeared as a haven, set amidst gardens protected from the road by high brick walls.  I think I went in believing myself too old and studied to feel any sort of childlike wonder at whatever I might discover inside, but I was wrong.  I couldn't hold back gasps of delight as I moved from each part of the house to the next.  Delight is the only word for it.  I grinned and laughed like a child, taken aback by the thoughtful skill -- love, really -- that was present in every detail of this house.  There is restraint and simplicity in the materials and fixtures, but they prove the makers' knowledge of craft, story, and context.  I was so glad to find that I can still be surprised -- disarmed, even -- by beautiful things.  The words trip from my mouth when I try to speak them, and tumble awkwardly from my fingers when I try to type them -- the things we feel most deeply are often the hardest to articulate -- but it feeds and restores my soul to be in surroundings such as these.  I've been teased for my love of buildings and objects...but they are all swirling with a meaning I can hardly begin to explain to you.

"Apple" wallpaper, Morris & Co.
Albeit a dreamer, Morris was a real man who really lived and really died.  He really lived in the house I walked through today, and he really believed in ideas that still influence the way people think and live and create.  I wonder what he found lying under and over and in all the beauty he adored.  What Truth did he find wrapped in the Icelandic sagas and medieval poems and Greek epics that stirred him so?  What was revealed to his heart during many hours of drawing, writing, carving, stitching, weaving, dyeing - - tasks that, in one way or another, emulated the divine creation of order out of chaos?  Did he find what I have found, that all these things we long for are, as my sister put it, "a constellation of good things" tracing the image of their Source?  I hope someday I'll find that he did.

Morris's motto: "Si je puis" ("If I can")

Wood block used to print Morris wallpaper

05 November, 2011

A Dinner Party, and O.D.G. : Chocolate Loaf Cake

Last night we had Denise (the beautiful giver of cupcakes) over to our flat for dinner.  It was the first "dinner party" we've hosted since I've been here, and the first time Denise has been invited to a meal in someone's home since she moved to London.  I didn't manage to get any photos before we tucked in, but this was the menu:

Curried butternut squash and apple soup
Crusty bread
Quinoa and black bean salad with apricot lime vinaigrette
Loosen Bros. 2010 Mosel Riesling
Nigella's Chocolate Loaf Cake

My flatmate said this was the best iteration of butternut squash soup we've had so far this fall, and I had to agree - I absolutely loved the flavors.  Roasting the butternut squash adds a bit more richness of flavor, and using Bramley apples added a nice undercurrent of sweetness to counter the curry spice.  The black bean salad was very filling and very healthy!

I used the occasion as an opportunity to jump ahead in "Operation Domestic Goddess" and bake something chocolatey!  Oh, is this chocolate loaf cake marvelous.  It's so dense and moist, and almost tastes like gingerbread due to the dark muscovado sugar. I forgot to get whipped cream to put on top, but it didn't really need anything extra after all -- delicious on its own!

Denise is a beautiful, funny, kind, fearless woman who radiates a zest for life.  I am very glad to have this lovely neighbor just across the river and hope this was just the first of many dinner parties!

04 November, 2011

In Which I Return to Irish Dance (Not to be Confused with Clogging)

Me, Amy, & our fans at an Irish dance competition, circa 2003.
On Monday night I joined an Irish dance class. (Allow me to get one preliminary out of the way: Irish dance is not clogging. This is clogging. Kenneth the Page does clogging. I don't do clogging. Mkay.) It's been eight years since I've danced regularly, and while I've retained the inevitable gargantuan calf muscles -- sort of an "inverted Popeye effect" -- developed by spending hours on the balls of your feet, I have most definitely not retained any semblance of flexibility or aerobic endurance. I read on the dance school website that the instructor formerly toured with "Riverdance"...You know, just the worldwide phenomenon, but whatever. No pressure.

I arrived at the address and beheld a run-down hundred-year-old building whose front door was blocked by three burly blokes. If it's possible to smoke a cigarette in a foreboding manner, that's what they were doing. I strode confidently up the steps, asserting my right to be on the premises. Walking past them with a "Y'alright?" I barged into the building and found myself standing in a quiet, sad, nearly deserted pub. No dance class or hint thereof. One of the two living souls in the room spotted the social awkwardness bubbling beneath the surface of my cool city girl demeanor, and simply said, "They're at the back." Sure enough, behind the bar was a door leading down to the event room. I could hear the old familiar click-clack of jig shoes on hardwood floors, and the accordion music that every Irish dance school seems to use for practice. It's ghastly...but nostalgic too, so it prompted a sort of half-grimace, half-smile from me.

The instructor opened class with a series of drills which, to my horror, involved jump ropes. I was a disastrous tangle of limbs and ponytail and plastic rope, trying to just keep the whole mess bobbing in time with the beat. Warm-ups in the US were never this militant, I thought; ironic, considering that my first dance instructor was a military man by day.

Having survived the jump ropes, I embarked on the most exhausting hour of aerobic activity to which I've subjected myself in eons. The muscles in my very toes were sore until today. I am so out of shape that I even managed to end up with sore arms. That's right, arms -- which you don't even use in Irish step dance. Good grief. Still, it was unbelievably fun and I found myself grinning uncontrollably as I danced. What a good thing it is to find the kind of exercise you can truly enjoy enough to push through the pain! I'm looking forward to going back next Monday. But this time, Jump Rope, I will be the master...