Tag Archives: My Life in France

Valentine’s Day a la Frank Sinatra

(As in, “My Way…”)

I’ve written about Valentine’s Day a lot in the past week. No matter what your relationship status/budget, I’m pretty sure I’ve covered it: From clueless guys — http://snurl.com/uczq9 — to open-minded folks of either gender — http://snurl.com/uczqt — and cheap women — http://snurl.com/uczrt — to the Nerdy: http://snurl.com/uczsh and…the Neurotic — http://snurl.com/uczjn.

Which is maybe a little funny or ironic or something…as I don’t really even like Valentine’s Day all that much. As noted in my Luxury Spot post (and reprinted below for your convenience!), I think it’s a holiday that gets it right in elementary school with that spirit of inclusion…although, truth be told, I sort of had a little Valentine’s Day Miracle this morning when I received an e-card from a man I’ve never met…but who has always been really supportive of my blog. It’s been about 8 years (but who’s counting?) since I’ve received any sort of valentine from someone who isn’t my mother or a girlfriend I’ve had since elementary school. So. It was a nice surprise…and made me sort of feel like I’m not some sort of heinous beast on the fringes of society today. (Although, truth be told again, I was thinking that I don’t really know him at all…and he could very well be a real-life Dexter or something [I’m totally in love with that show now and super-sad that I have run out of episodes to watch online]…and then — lo and behold — he tweeted about a gun show and said that there was one firearm in particular that he really coveted. So…hmm…food for thought?)

Speaking of food! If I was in love today, there are plenty of things I would make for my special someone. And if you really are in love and panicking about what to whip up as Mr./Ms. Wonderfulpants is en route, fret no more:

I think you have a lot of leeway and can get away with making anything that your Valentine loves. But if your Valentine isn’t specific, you can keep up a red/pink theme with red velvet cake or heart-shaped sugar cookies (that you can then decorate however you please…and make them really super-personal and sweet and s/he will swoon…)…and then, of course, there’s always Sex in a Pan…which one of my mother’s coworkers brought for a wedding shower or something a million years ago and that somehow ended up in our family cookbook…and that was a big hit with my friends in high school. (I was actually just thinking about a time I visited some folks in Georgia and was absolutely insistent — to the point of belligerency — that we needed Cook and Serve pudding…and it wasn’t until we got home and started assembling it that I realized I was wrong and my friend was right and we totally needed Instant.)

If these ideas sound like too much trouble, I suggest Duncan Hines. I have a friend who used to do PR for Duncan and who needed some photos of some Valentine’s Day recipes last year…which I made and then photographed…and I actually thought most of them were pretty good (except for the giant frosted two-layer, heart-shaped brownies with cherry fluff in the middle. I thought those were a little overkill…).

This year, like most years in the past decade, I have no one to feed but myself. Which is basically fine. After all, it’s the Year of Lisa. Although…I *did* find a Grow-A-Date figurine that I’ve had for years and years and years…that I think my mother (or my aunt) sent me while I was living in England. It is *supposed* to be “the incredible expanding date that grows in water” and says it can be used over and over again…but I tried it out once before and — if memory serves — it didn’t do much. But…for old times’ sake, I have immersed him in a large container of room-temperature water again…and we’ll see what happens. (I am documenting it with photos every hour on the hour…so tomorrow I should have definitive proof either way…)

So, I mean, here we are with Valentine’s Day over halfway over and I have not had one single bout of jealous rage. I think it is because of my Valentine’s Day card…which I wrote about — as noted — for the Luxury Spot.

So…without further ado, my post:

Oh, Valentine’s Day…wingéd harbinger of bitterness…

The past several years, I’ve tried to anticipate you and come up with a sensible way to counteract you, thereby maybe enjoying – or at least enduring — the Day of Love…but, sadly, nothing has proven particularly effective – not sending cards to my nieces and nephew; not “going out with the girls…”; not baking heart-shaped treats for my coworkers.

But I think this year I have finally cracked it! And, I mean, I may be getting cocky again and Monday morning will find me curled up in a ball on my bathroom floor after drinking an entire bottle of pink champagne by myself…but…with 48 hours to go, I’m feeling pretty good about my 2010 Valentine’s Day Plan.

But, first…a brief history:

I feel like this is the one holiday that really gets it right in elementary school and everyone has to bring in cards for everyone else. No one is left out. No one feels unloved or unwanted. Everyone goes home with a heart-shaped envelope full of cards and candy. (I can remember carefully scrutinizing my valentines while addressing them to ensure the boys in my class got the least sentimental ones…lest they get the wrong impression and think I harbored any genuine feelings for them…)

But then I grew up and got a job and started going to work on February 14 (or thereabouts)…and walked into offices that looked like veritable florists…and knew, year after year, that the only sign of life on *my* desk would be the countless knickknacks and office supplies that were there 365 days a year…and as much as I’d like to be a big person and to be happy for everyone else, let’s face it – after X goddamn years, it’s hard to grit your teeth and smile and think, “That’s so nice for you! I am happy that you are having a happy Valentine’s Day!” and actually mean it…and not, you know, shoot laserbeams out of your eyes at her while you’re doing it.

So…this clearly promulgated my Overtly Anti-Valentine’s Day Phase…in which any canoodling couple was subject to my wrath. But…let’s face it – it’s not fun to be angry at the whole entire world…and, truth be told, I really like holidays. (My aunt bought me a decorative plate that says, “Happy Everything!” and includes a montage of every Christian holiday from Valentine’s Day to Christmas…and it is prominently displayed on a bookcase in my apartment…)

And I admit that I *did* enjoy learning that Valentine’s Day is rooted in a pagan ceremony that involved slapping young women with strips of animal flesh after a ritual sacrifice while I was researching a story for another Web site…but I honestly don’t want to be the Valentine’s Day Grinch. (Plus, I was really excited about busting out my Valentine’s Day spatula and my Valentine’s Day dishtowels and my Valentine’s Day potholder this year. So any grinchiness on my part would be disingenuous.)

Nevertheless…

I will never forget the Valentine’s Day I worked for a popular lifestyle magazine in Midtown. I was carefully hidden away in an area adjacent to the conference rooms that was affectionately (…or not so much…) labeled “Intern Alley.” But…it was also remarkably close to the Editor-in-Chief’s office (and, therefore, her assistant). And I found her assistant incredibly intimidating because she was one of those women who was drop-dead gorgeous and had amazing clothes and was super-confident…and, you know, I feel like there’s some justice in the world when women like that are really dumb or trapped in loveless marriages or whatever…but this woman – we’ll call her Genevieve – could speak French. Flawless French. Her phone would ring and she would pick up and fire away en francais as if we were working in Paris or something.

So…it was no surprise to me on Valentine’s Day that year when a mail room guy appeared at her desk with a giant box of flowers.

“Oh, look! My boyfriend sent me flowers!” Genevieve cooed.

And then…merely an hour or two later, another box appeared.

“Oh, look! My ex-boyfriend sent me flowers!” she trilled again.

I began to quietly seethe in Intern Alley.

And then…the coup de grace – the Editor-in-Chief returned from lunch with a huge spread of peach roses (which, according to various Web sites, mean anything from appreciation and desire to modesty) that she bestowed upon Genevieve, declaring, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Gen! These are for you…because you are my Valentine!”

(For a brief period, I thought this meant she was unmarried…and I had this enormous amount of respect for her […and even a tiny girlcrush…] because I thought it meant she had scaled the masthead solo and found herself with huge editorial prowess at the head of magazine with millions of monthly readers. But then June rolled along and she featured a Father’s Day spread with her husband and daughter…and I realized she’s just another wife…and was frankly kind of disappointed…)

So, I mean, the moral of this story is that I understand that beautiful, perfect, well-dressed, well-spoken women inspire flowers on Valentine’s Day. It makes perfect sense. But what I don’t understand is how one of these beautiful, perfect, well-dressed, well-spoken women can inspire three dozen flowers…and I can’t conjure up the inspiration for a single measly bud. Am I really that ugly and imperfect and ill-clothed and tongue-tied? Or, if not, is the universe really just that mean? (I used to also quietly seethe when walking by delis in my neighborhood that had flowers out front…and it was kind of a big moment in my coming-of-age or whatever when I realized that if I wanted flowers, I didn’t have to wait around for Mr. Wonderfulpants…but could rather buy them for myself…which was maybe even better as I could pick out the precise bouquet I wanted…)

Because, you see…other than the bouquets my mother bought me when I graduated high school and college (and a bouquet I sent to myself at work once to make a coworker jealous), I have gotten flowers exactly two times before: Once at work after giving my business card to a weird little man at a bar in Jersey City…who sent them with a note that read, “From, Patrick…” and I had no idea who they were from until he began calling my work number obsessively to see if I got them…and while I thought that if I ignored him long enough, he would eventually give up…I had to finally give in and answer the phone and tell him I had a boyfriend to make him go away.

The other time I received flowers from someone not related to me by blood was when I actually *did* have a boyfriend…but I had to sit him down ahead of time and say, “Valentine’s Day is coming up. You need to buy me flowers…or I am going to get mad.”

I was so excited to actually be in love that year…that I sort of pulled out all the stops with the card that I made for him. I had loved Javier Lopez – the former catcher for the Atlanta Braves (…I lived in Atlanta in the mid-to-late ‘90s…) – for years and years…and the Boyfriend sort of took issue with my obsession…and so for Valentine’s Day, I took an image of Javy and turned him into Cupid and then wrote something about how, you know, I had loved Javy for years and years…but now that I had the Boyfriend, I didn’t really need Javy anymore because I had another person in my life to love. I thought it was poignant and sweet and I couldn’t think of a better way to say, “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

But…sadly, the Boyfriend read it and took it in for a moment and then looked at me totally bewildered and said, “You think I’m good at baseball?”

(In his defense, he was English. So…perhaps there was some sort of cultural disconnect?)

Nevertheless, making cards still makes me happy. I sent out one with my cat for the holidays – one of those photo cards that people usually send out with their significant other and/or their children. I decided it would be funny if I embraced my Lonely Girl image and sent a “From Our House to Yours…”-card with my cat. (One friend called it “hilariously empowering…” which I realized is really the only thing I have ever aspired to be in my life…so I was pretty thrilled.)

So…since the holiday card went over so well, I really wanted to do another one for Valentine’s Day. And while I could get away with using the cat for the holidays, I really didn’t want to firmly establish a precedent. Plus, I mean, it’s Valentine’s Day. I like my cat, but…c’mon.

So…a proverbial seed was planted and I began thinking about what I could for Valentine’s Day. And then I don’t know how or when I remembered it, but…at some point last year, I read Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” And…I guess Julia and Paul liked sending out Valentine’s Day cards as there was a whole section in the middle of the book with images of the various valentines they sent out over the years…and there was one in particular in a bathtub that I just loved. And when I remembered it, I really, really, really wanted to use it. The problem, however, is that Paul Child is in the photo. And while I could easily superimpose my head on Julia’s body, I didn’t know how to deal with Paul. So…I started thinking about which men I could use in Paul’s place. In theory, there was Javy…but that seemed a little old and tired. And…I also thought that I could pick a girlfriend and glue *her* face on Paul’s body…but, while potentially empowering again, it seemed a little weird.

So…I was stuck…until I remembered Tucker Max. And I don’t really know where it came from in my head as I’ve never read the book or seen the movie…but, seemingly from nowhere, I recalled the movie poster for “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell,” and the “YOUR FACE HERE,” on the girl’s body. Et, voila. My Valentine’s Day card was born.

I wish I knew Photoshop and/or had access to it as I feel it would have turned out better with, you know, seamless integration and whatnot…but, as it stands, I’m pretty pleased with the end result. (And…looking handmade = love? Maybe?)

I’m not going to lie – it would make me pretty happy to wake up on Sunday and find one of these on my doorstep (…but not from a weird little man who lives with his parents in Bayonne and calls obsessively for weeks…)…but, bar that, I think it makes me happy to send these images out into the world and spread a little Valentine’s Day joy. So…see? Maybe I’m not such a bitter Betty after all.

I’ll even say it: Happy Valentine’s Day!

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No Candy Thermometer? No Problem!

I went to high school with a girl named Yoshi Nishibara and today is her birthday. I don’t know why mumble-mumble-mumble years after we graduated, I can still remember this. But I can. (The first boy I ever kissed celebrated *his* 32nd birthday eight days ago. I don’t know why I remember that either.)

Yesterday, however, was my friend’s husband’s birthday. And…since last year at this time, I was all about vegan baking, I’m afraid my friend’s husband (and my friend…whose birthday happens to be at the end of November) got stuck with more than their fair share of my vegan experiments. And…since I’ve had tres leches on the brain, I decided there was really no better way to celebrate my friend’s husband’s birthday than with a cake that is decidedly non-vegan — three milks *and* a whole mess o’ egg whites.

The recipe I found on Epicurious said that tres leches is a Nicaraguan cake often served during the holidays…which I suppose makes it even *more* poetic as I sorta, kinda spent upwards of five minutes *in* Nicaragua while I was in Central America a few weeks back.

I don’t think my cake pan was *quite* big enough…as the sponge cake sort of exploded over the edge, giving itself a muffin top. But…no worries, I guess…you’re supposed to cut off the hardened top layer anyway. (And, for the record, it smelled really, really good…like, almost worth eating on its own?)

I think my favorite part of making this cake was the meringue. I’ve blogged before about how meringues are my nemesis…(damn you, you ridiculously clean bowl!) but this recipe called for making it in a totally new way…and I confess I was transfixed! You get four egg whites ready in a mixer…and they sit around and wait while you bring sugar and water to a boil on the stove. As soon as the sugar/water mixture is boiling, you start up your mixer.

Now, the directions say to keep the sugar/water on the burner until it reaches “soft ball stage” on a candy thermometer…and then add it to the egg whites and turn the mixer on really high until it is shiny and cool. But, alas, I do not *have* a candy thermometer…just a meat thermometer. And, you know, sometimes my ingenious solutions work out really well…and sometimes they are absolute disasters. Luckily, this time it was the former. (I told an old coworker about this and he said, “Sure…I mean, candy? Meat? What’s the difference?”) I Googled “soft ball stage” and learned that it’s 235°F to 240°F. And my meat thermometer goes up to 220 (although the highest cooking temperature it has listed is 180 for poultry…). So…I decided that I would wait until it hit 220 and then leave it on the burner for another minute or two…and then surely it would be at 235ish. And…I gotta say I was a little skeptical about the adding-it-to-mixing-egg-whites part…but, it totally worked. Like a charm. A beautiful meringue. (I don’t think it looked *quite* as pretty ON the cake…and I briefly flirted with the idea of tossing it back in the oven to brown those peaks…but…then I decided I should maybe leave well enough alone…)

(Sidenote: Candy thermometers really make me feel like it’s the holidays. That’s because [I am told] my great-grandmother was a whiz at pie-baking and candy-making…and it was from her that my aunt learned everything she knows about pies [I think — I *may* be taking a little creative license here…] and my mom learned everything she knows about candy. And so, in the Decembers of my youth, my mother would make fudge and penuche to hand out to friends and coworkers…making this the one time of year she used her candy thermometer…)

So…fun fact: The milks in question are sweetened condensed, evaporated and heavy cream. You mix all of that up with two tablespoons of optional rum (and, who are we kidding? I *obviously* included the rum…but had to buy a GIANT bottle of it…and so will theoretically have a little Captain in me for years to come…). Then you just sort of slowly pour it all over the sponge cake with the sawed-off top and it soaks it up. I was a little concerned that I was over-liquefying it because my cake wasn’t big enough…but I didn’t actually end up sampling it in the end…so…dunno.

I made the cranberry compote, too…which I thought was supposed to be more like a sauce…but, according to another quick Google, is whole fruit in syrup. (Although I think it is crazy-ridiculous that the recipe says to add four cloves…and then to remove said cloves before serving. It’s a big fruity glob — one could spend hours searching for individual cloves. And, for whatever reason, I totally just flashed on a movie with Pee Wee Herman and the circus — Big Top Pee Wee? — in which there’s a really tall guy with a super-tiny wife…and she sings a song about being a needle in a haystack…which I can only imagine is sort of like finding cloves in cranberry compote…[why do I remember that all this time later, too?])

I *also* thought it was kind of funny that the recipe said to add just enough water to make the cornstarch “slurry.” I think I added a *little* too much and in fact made it “wet.” (Cornstarch is some crazy stuff…going from liquid to solid to liquid…it’s almost a little trippy.)

Then…my friend gave me a copy of the latest issue of Yoga Journal that has a story entitled, “The Joy of Baking,” and includes — get this — a recipe for a vegan chocolate cake. (Aww…while I was assembling the tres leches cake, I also found my disembodied Santa and snowman heads that are supposed to go on holiday cupcakes…and I briefly thought about repurposing one for a happy December birthday…but, in the end, I decided that the disembodied heads will be fine in their baggie for another year…)

So…the writer talks about growing up in a remote town and receiving cakes from church ladies who would go out of their way to deliver them to cheer someone up or to celebrate something. THEN she goes on to say that through this practice she “learned early on the joys of nourishing the heart through food.” And she quotes a yoga guy from Berkeley who says, “It’s not unlike the kind of nourishment that comes from romantic love. Food prepared with loving intention is spiritual.”

And I’d never thought of that before! (Insert the obvious joke about how I’ve been able to stay single for so long…) But, I mean…I think she’s right. There *is* something sort of deep and meaningful and connecting-you-to-the-Everyman and whatnot that happens when you bake stuff for people. It makes them happy. And making them happy makes you happy. And that makes you feel good…regardless of how often you actually flex your overtly spiritual muscles. (And surely being a spreader of joy buys you some leeway in the eyes of organized religion?)

And, I mean, I’ve long known the therapeutic effects of baking — still one of the only things that always calms me down when I’m upset — and…as I put the finishing touches on my book proposal, I am realizing that baking-as-coping-mechanism is a really big theme. No matter what’s going on, I’ve always been able to turn to it…and it *always* makes me feel better. (I am actually trying to think of a good title with a new spin on a common baking phrase. Suggestions welcome.)

And I *totally* know what she means about interacting with strangers on the street when she’s hauling around giant baked good carriers…and then the warm, fuzzy part: After baking cakes as offerings for a year, she says she learned “…when we offer up our labor, time, energy, love and craft — humble and imperfect as they might be — with no expectation of return, people respond in kind, and tenderness opens up in the space between.” (Which almost makes me think I should tackle a similar experiment in 2010…)

And, while I don’t really get the yoga connection that she goes on to talk about (I am seriously uncoordinated and exercising in public is one of the things I fear more than anything)…I really like what she says right there. It actually reminds me a lot about Julia Child in My Life in France…who says you should never apologize for any mistakes…because 1) you were nice enough to make something for everyone and they should be gracious, dammit (my paraphrase); and 2) if you’re making them eat something gross, they shouldn’t have to boost your ego, too.

And that’s something that I’m still learning how to do…whenever I offer up something, I immediately want to apologize for all the imperfections — watch out for wax paper on the bottom…and be careful of those cloves I didn’t remove…and it may be too watery…and the meringue looks a little funny… — it’s not easy to just say, “Bon appetit,” and leave it at that.

(And, speaking of Julia, my own sister just MET Julia Powell at a book signing…and she was sweet and asked ahead of time if I had any questions…and I, of course, sent over about 1,000…and, wouldn’t you know? My sister got them all answered for me. [And — hey — I suppose I could even go to the Meat Hook tonight myself…if I am feeling particularly brave.])

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