Thursday, December 31, 2009

Sticky Buns

When I was small my family celebrated Christmas morning with sticky buns. Presented in a white cardboard box from the local bakery, they were fat and luscious with brown sugar frosting and crunchy pecans. I always ate mine in small bites, pulling them apart with my fingers at their seams.

Years later, when I was in high school, my parents split up. As a result many things changed. Among them, our holidays suddenly became disjointed. Many of our traditions—the tiny ones that we'd carved together beneath the tree, beside the menorah—were thrown to the wayside, now relics of the past.

Last week, however, I revived one. I wanted sticky buns for Christmas. This time, I made them from scratch. They were the first I’ve eaten in years.

I began the recipe, which is from Bon Appetit, on Christmas Eve at my mother's house in Boston. I let the dough rise while my mom, her boyfriend, my brother and I ate dinner--sharing a lasagna with spinach and ricotta, salad with pomegranate seeds and pine nuts, and lots of wine.

I kneaded the soft pillow of dough at 11 pm, giggling in the hazy glow of a glass of Burgundy. I rolled the dough into rectangles, brushed it with butter and spice, and then wound it into two tight logs. After cutting each one into tiny rounds, which curled like snails, I placed the buns into cake pans coated with a thick brown sugar glaze. Then I let them sit in the fridge overnight.

I came downstairs before anyone else on Christmas morning, the kitchen awash in a pink post-dawn light. I took the pans out of the cold and let the buns rise on the counter for a second time. Then I stuck them in the oven as my family slowly made their way to join me by the tree. Soon, the house was filled with a sweet yeasty scent, one of hot cinnamon and sugar.

Later, we ate the sticky buns while sitting on the couch and washed them down with glasses of champagne. They were fleshy, flaky and warm. The rich caramel glaze hung over each hump of baked dough like snow. They were just as I remembered. Actually, they were better.

Sticky Buns
Adapted from Bon Appetit

Makes 24

1 cup warm water (105-115 degrees Fahrenheit)
4 teaspoons dry yeast
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup dry nonfat milk powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs
4 1/4 cups all purpose flour (plus more, I found, to get the dough the desired consistency)

1 1/4 cups dark brown sugar, packed
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup golden syrup, or dark corn syrup
1/4 cup water
3 cups pecan halves

4 teaspoons sugar
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

For Dough:

Mix warm water and yeast with a pinch of sugar in a small bowl. Let stand until foamy, about 8 minutes. Using electric mixer, beat remaining sugar, butter, milk powder and salt in a large bowl until well blended. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add yeast mixture, and then 3 cups of flour, one cup at a time. Using a rubber spatula, mix in final cup of flour, scraping down the sides of the bowl frequently. The dough will be soft and sticky. Sprinkle the remaining ¼ cup flour on the counter and knead dough until smooth and elastic, adding more flour as you go until no longer sticky, about 8 minutes.

Butter another large bowl and put the dough inside, turning to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm area, until doubled, about 2 ½ to 3 hours.

For the Glaze:

Butter two 10-inch round cake pans with 2-inch sides. Beat brown sugar, ½ cup butter, honey, golden syrup, and ¼ cup water in a medium bowl to blend. Spread half of the glaze in the bottom of each prepared pan. Sprinkle 1 ½ cups pecans over each.

Punch down the dough. Divide in half. Roll each piece out on a floured work surface into a large rectangle, about 12 by 9 inches. Brush excess flour off of the dough, and spread the remaining butter over each rectangle, dividing equally. Mix the four teaspoons of sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Sprinkle it over each rectangle evenly. Then, starting at the long side, roll each rectangle up into a log. Cut each into 12 rounds. Place 12 rounds, cut side down, in each pan, spacing evenly. Cover with plastic wrap.

You can let this rise now for about an hour, until doubled. Or you can place the pans in the fridge overnight and let them rise the following day, for about an hour and a half or 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the buns until a deep golden brown, abut 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edges to loosen the buns, and then turn immediately over on a platter while still hot. Serve and enjoy.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Matt was waiting for me when I emerged from baggage claim at the airport in Warsaw, Poland, late on the final Saturday afternoon of October. He had arrived on his own flight from Afghanistan, by way of Kuwait, only a few hours earlier. He looked tired under the harsh fluorescent lighting of the lobby. He wasn’t in uniform, which surprised me. We hugged for a long time, and his skin smelled exactly the same.

Matt had two weeks leave from Afghanistan and we spent them together in Eastern Europe. When we first began to plan the trip, we contemplated “normal” destinations like Hawaii or Costa Rica or even New York. But, in the end, we decided on an adventure: One far from the heat of the desert; one close to a history that fascinates us both. “I just really want to see fall,” Matt had told me on the phone.

We traveled through the foggy chill of Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Hungary over the following two weeks. It was a challenging trip, and a wonderful trip. We learned a lot about the land, and about each other. We rode a rickety bus through the countryside of Ukraine, descended deep into a cavernous old salt mine, and stood solemnly on the grounds of Auschwitz as the sun sank in the sky beyond the electrified fences and barbed wire. We sampled bright purple borscht in almost every city we passed and even made it through a bowl of tripe soup laced with sour cream and garlic at a pub in rural Romania. We walked among castles and monasteries and farms. We drove a tiny car through Transylvania and bought honey on the side of the road. We slept on a number of trains as they bumped over borders, sharing loaves of bread and tiny bottles of vodka along the way. The smells—of steamy trolleys, of sizzling meat, of human and animal and streets—were so strong I vacillated between feeling joyous and physically ill. We saw big things and small things, both expensive and cheap. I found I liked the simple best.

One evening in Krakow, Matt and I settled side-by-side on a wooden bench against the wall of a basement jazz club in the city center. He put his arm around my waist and we sipped thick tumblers of whiskey. Amid the swirls of Polish and clinking of glass, we listened to gray-haired men rock out on trumpets and trombones, a base guitarist who hardly moved and a drummer whose face gyrated with every beat. It was warm and smoky and sweet.

When the show ended, we were starving. We emerged outside to be hit by a gust of frozen wind. I immediately began to shiver and we moved quickly, jogging across intersections, only occasionally pausing to peer at our map. After ten minutes we reached a big blue van parked on the side of the street.

“Is this it?” I asked.

“Yes!” said Matt, excited.

In front of the van stood two men bundled in thick hats and coats. They manned two large metal barrels, which glowed with the lazy jump of flames. Within, they cooked dozens of kielbasa, thick curvy sausages lined up on poles. For seven zloty, or about $2.50, we each received a piece of meat, a splotch of mustard and a crusty white roll on a thin cardboard sheet. A snap to the slightly burnt skin gave way to tender flesh within. We ate them standing at a makeshift wooden table with plastic forks and knives alongside a handful of other silent, hungry men. Walking back to our hotel close to midnight, Matt’s arm linked with my own, I finally felt warm.

You can read more about our trip here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Happy to be one of fifteen finalists for Creative Nonfiction's blog contest! My entry can be seen here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Wedding Cake

Ashley and Colin were married last Saturday. The ceremony took place next to the ocean up in Maine. I stood near the lighthouse with the other bridesmaids in a line of deep blue fabric around noon. I watched Colin, who wore a kilt and a yellow rose on his chest, as Ashley walked down the aisle in her gown. I wasn’t sure if I was shivering from the cold or from the intensity of his smile or, later, from the radiance of her tears. Their happiness was contagious.

And I made their wedding cake.

Ashley and Colin asked me to make their cake a little over a year ago, during the cocktail hour of another wedding, which I wrote about here. I immediately said yes. I had had a drink or two and it sounded like a great idea. I’ve worked in bakeries before. I love to feed people. How hard could it be?

The anxiety set in around April of this year, however, and it didn’t let up until last Saturday around 3 p.m., when those two sliced into the bottom tier and fed each other buttercream bites with their fingers.

I learned a lot.

Baking a wedding cake is all about the planning. It requires a lot of ingredients and a lot of equipment. It requires time. More time than I gave myself, really. I left the residency in Woodstock and arrived at my mother’s house in Boston on Wednesday evening. I made a few batches of frosting and went to bed. I began to bake on Thursday morning. It was an intense day: one that began around in the still-dark 6 a.m. and didn’t end until a bleary 11 at night. I got through the final stretch with the help of my mother, who fed me wine and ice cream upon returning home from work.

Early on Friday morning I drove up to Maine with the four frosted tiers, which I had carefully placed into plastic boxes and balanced snugly on the backseat. Around 1 p.m. I arrived at the inn where the reception would be held the following day. I brought the cakes into the professional kitchen so that I could stack them into something resembling a wedding cake. This task required wooden dowels, which I had never used before, and a lot of faith. Before I began I stood motionless for a few minutes, staring at the individual tiers. They were big, hefty cakes measuring at 8, 10, 12 and 14 inches, respectively. I held a pair of wire cutters in one hand and the dowels in the other and I thought: this will never work. The dowels seemed so thin and the cake, so heavy. But finally the teenage prep cook who was working on the mise en place for dinner service behind me leaned over and whispered: “Just do it.”

So I did.

I measured, cut and then stuck the dowels into the cake. I delicately placed the tiers on top, one after another. And it didn't collapsed. It didn't sink into a sticky cloud of crumbs. The cake held just fine. It turns out wooden dowels really do work.

And on Saturday afternoon the 125 guests devoured it all. It was an almond cake, filled with alternating layers of lemon curd and blueberry jam and frosted with a swiss buttercream. I will say: it was delicious.

Ashley and Colin’s Wedding Cake

This wedding cake required patience. It required 10 pounds of almond paste, 10 pounds of sugar, upwards of 60 sticks of butter and 100 eggs. It required 40 lemons, four cake pans and a whole mess of cardboard rounds and wooden dowels. But when I finished and saw it perched on a table and surrounded by pale blue hydrangeas, it looked like a wedding cake. A real wedding cake. True, it looked like a wedding cake made by a bridesmaid and not a professional baker, but I’ve never been so happy to watch a lawn full of people eat dessert. I’ve never been so happy to see two people in love shoving hunks of frosting into each others' mouths.

I am listing only the base recipe of each component to the cake below, which is enough to make one 10” cake. I am happy to expand if there's interest. For Ashley and Colin's I did a lot of guesswork, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t always the most time efficient. But, hey, it worked.

Almond Cake
Adapted from Baking with Julia

Recipe can be found here.

For a 10” cake, you need to use this recipe twice in order to make the four layers. Bake two cakes and them let them cool according to the recipe’s instructions. [I didn’t use any extra equipment in order to help this size cake come out smooth and even, and I had no problems. Only for the 14” cake did I use a baking core.]

When the cakes are cool, slice each in half using a long serrated knife so that you effectively now have four. This can be tough, so work slowly and at eye level, making sure to keep the knife even.

Then, dab the top of each layer fully with moistening syrup [recipe below] using a pastry brush. Use enough so that it soaks into the top, but doesn’t saturate it. I used perhaps 2 cups of the syrup for the entire 4-tier cake.

Moistening Syrup
Adapted from Dede Wilson’s wonderful book: Wedding Cakes You Can Make

Now this is key. I’m pretty sure this moistening syrup, which is just simple syrup with some lemon juice, kept the cake at a perfect just-baked level of moist crumbiness. It worked so well that multiple gray-haired men came up to me after the reception to say they have never had such delicious wedding cake in all their life.

1 cup water
1 cup sugar
lemon juice to taste

Bring water and sugar to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Stir until sugar is dissolved, and take off heat. Let cool to room temperature. Add lemon juice. I used around ¼ cup for this amount.

While the cake is baking and moistening syrup cooling, make the frosting. [Or, like me, you can make this ahead of time.]

Swiss Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

You can find this recipe here.

For one 10” cake I doubled the medium size recipe that this blog author used, and had a bit leftover. I guess I like frosting. This can be kept in Tupperware in the fridge overnight. Make sure to take it out and let it return to room temperature before you use it. It needs to be whipped again in a standing mixer. Don’t be alarmed if it immediately looks curdled. That happened to me a number of times and I found myself constantly on the verge of a panic attack. Just let it keep whipping. All will be OK. I promise.

And then you can begin to stack the cake layers.

First, I generally take some frosting and put it in a ziplock bag. I then cut a tiny piece off the end of one corner and use it as a makeshift pastry bag. I pipe a line of frosting around the edge of each cake layer before I put on the filling. This helps to keep the curd and the jam from oozing out, so it won’t discolor the frosting later.

Lemon curd [recipe below] goes between the first two layers of almond cake. The blueberry jam ["recipe" below] goes between the second and third, and lemon curd again between the last two. Use a nice thick layer, maybe half an inch or so of curd, a little less of jam.

Lemon Curd
Adapted from Alton Brown

5 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
4 lemons, zested and juiced
1 stick of butter, cut into smaller pieces, cold

Bring about an inch of water to a simmer in a medium saucepan. In a medium size metal bowl, combine egg yolks and sugar and whisk until smooth, about a minute. Measure the citrus juice you’ve squeezed. It should come to about a third of a cup. If there’s less, add water. Add the juice and the zest to the egg mixture. When water in the pan is at a simmer, reduce heat to low and place the metal bowl on top of the saucepan. It shouldn’t touch the water. Whisk constantly until thickened, light yellow and coats the back of a wooden spoon. This takes anywhere between 7 and 12 minutes, in my experience. Remove from heat and stir in the butter immediately, one piece at a time, allowing each addition to melt. Keep stored in a clean container, with plastic wrap touching the curd on top, so as to prevent a crust.

Blueberry Jam

I meant to make this from scratch, but time got away from me. My recommendation in this scenario: Buy it at the grocery store. I used Bon Maman.

And next: begin frosting.

I frost the cake in two steps. First, I do a quick all-round layer, often called the “crumb coat.” I do the sides first, and then the top. I use a knife to spread, or an offset spatula. I get the cake completely covered in this round. If there any dips or dives in the cake, I put a bit more frosting there to even it out. Then I put it in the fridge for a few hours. The second frosting is more important. The second layer comes when the first is already hard, and you don’t have to worry about the crumbs desecrating the pristine white of the buttercream. So for the second layer, again, I do the sides first and then the top. I often dip the knife or spatula I am using to frost into a cup of warm water to help smooth things over. It just takes patience.

Monday, August 31, 2009


Four years ago yesterday I smashed the windshield of an oncoming car with the back of my skull. I broke my pelvis, tore the tendons and ligaments in my left knee, and lost my sense of smell. I don’t remember much about the following weeks. Or months, really. I went from working in the kitchen of a restaurant, on the eve of beginning culinary school, to recovering on a bed in my mother’s living room, enveloped by a haze of pain killers and depression.

This year, yesterday, I baked a cake. It was a simple butter cake. I used brown sugar and eggs, cinnamon and baking soda and flour. I poured it in a pan and I nestled a few neat rows of deep purple plums, cut in half, on top. I popped it in the oven, and when it came out into the kitchen a half hour later the whole room smelled sweet and warm, like fruit and caramel and autumn. A deep purple, nutty brown autumn.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how lucky I am. I lost my sense of smell in a car accident four years ago. With it vanished my ability to taste and my plans to be a chef. But since then, it has slowly returned. It has returned in a curious and fantastic manner, one that ignites wonder almost every day. In fact now, after all these years of thinking and stressing and working on it, I think I can smell better than I ever did before.

I’m lucky because I experienced a traumatic accident, terrified my family and could have died. I could have lost so much more. But I didn’t. I’m here. I’m writing a book about smell and all that it means. The experience, in fact, has given me more than it ever took away. If I lost anything, it was the sense of immortality that at age 22 I really felt was mine. I lost some naivety, and the tendency to ignore the small things in life.

I baked that plum cake in the kitchen of a large, wood-planked house in Woodstock, New York. I’m here for the month of September, quietly tucked away in a small studio to write. There are nine others on the property —writers, painters and composers—all doing the same as part of a residency program up in the hills. It’s so quiet at night I can hear the crickets. I can hear water trickling from down the road. It gets so dark that the moon illuminates the trees, shimmering through the leaves like diamonds, and it’s not hard to imagine all sorts of ghosts waiting just behind the creek.

Friday, August 21, 2009


I’ve been waking up early since I returned from France. Very early. Like, pre-dawn early. I’m not entirely sure why. At first it was because of jet lag. More recently it’s probably because of too much work. Too much of that now-familiar anxiety, born of book writing and boys at war, which curls up from my toes and shoots through my spine.


In these very early mornings I enjoy watching the sun rise. There is a pear tree that grows in the yard behind my apartment building. It looks nice in the dim morning light, thick with green fruit and leaves. I’m watching it right now, in fact. It’s not morning, but that doesn’t matter. It’s raining like crazy, blustery and dark as thunder claps above my head. The pear tree looks like it's dancing in the wind: something fast and jaunty, like the four-step I learned in Louisiana this spring.

Also in the very early morning I like to bake. This morning, for example, I made zucchini bread. I used my stepmother’s recipe, which is a favorite of Matt’s. I baked a loaf and let it cool. I wrapped it up tightly and put it in a box. This afternoon I brought it to the post office. I’m not sure how well zucchini bread travels, but we’ll see. Next stop for that plump little guy: Afghanistan.

Last week I made cantuccini, a simple biscotti-like cookie, almond-studded and bronze. The recipe came from Julia Child’s Baking with Julia, which now seems fitting with all the press swirling about a certain film. They are wonderful in the very early morning, especially when dunked in a mug of coffee.

Adapted from Baking with Julia

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon. salt
1 1/2 cups whole, blanched almonds
3 large eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine all the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Stir. Add almonds and mix well.

In another bowl, whisk together the eggs and vanilla extract.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir.

Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead it for a few minutes. It’s dry, but
comes together after a few minutes. Add flour if it sticks.

Divide in half and shape it into two 12-inch logs. Transfer the logs to a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Bake for 30 minutes. The logs will rise a bit, turning lightly brown on the bottom.

Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Once cool, cut the logs into quarter-inch slices. Lay the slices, cut side down, on a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Bake for an additional 10 or 15 minutes, or until the cantuccini are bronzed but not too dark. Let cool completely and enjoy!

Sunday, July 26, 2009


On Friday afternoon I sat at a table outside of a bistro in the hills above Grasse, France. The pale blue sea was visible in the distance. The air smelled of salt.

Ten of us were there together to eat lunch. An international group, hailing from places like India and Argentina, we are all in the midst of an intensive course on scent at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery. Grasse itself, speckled with fields of jasmine and firms of fragrance, is the birthplace of the perfume industry and remains vibrant and involved today. We spend long days in class sniffing thin paper strips, the tips of which have been dipped into bottles of raw materials like bergamot, lavender, and galbanum. I’m deep into work on my book and on my nose, and thus far I can smell them all. The scent of cistus, an aromatic and woody flowering plant from Spain, brings me straight to the The New England Spring Flower Show, an annual event that filled cavernous rooms in the Bayside Expo Center with the scent of earth and smoke and pine, and where my father brought me every year when I was small.

As we sat around the table on Friday, speaking of little else than smell, a portly man with a shock of white hair tied back in a ponytail brought out a massive steaming plate and plunked it down in front of us all. Paella: a rice dish rich with paprika and saffron, with chicken and mussels and squid. Though originally from Spain, it is the specialty of this coastal French chef. It glowed in orange and red, punctuated with the pink of prawns. Everyone leaned in to sniff before taking the first bite.

Later, we finished with pie. The tarte au citron smelled of lemon and brown sugar. It was light and sweet and tasted of summer.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Salad Days

I haven't slept in the same place for more than two weeks since March.

I moved in the first days of that month, from a dark little sublet in Manhattan's East Village to a tiny studio in Brooklyn. Matt and I traveled -- to Argentina, where we explored the foothills of the Andes and ate more red meat than I thought possible, and to New Orleans, where we saw his family -- before he had to report for duty. Once he was in uniform and I was back in New York, we spent weekends in St. Louis and in Louisiana, a countdown of days before he deployed to Afghanistan.

Since Matt left, I've traveled for work, interviewing scientists and chefs in Philadelphia and Chicago. I've seen family in Boston and on Martha's Vineyard. I attended a bachelorette party on Cape Cod, complete with matching pink tank tops and a sun-drenched afternoon at the beach. I just got back from North Carolina where I spent a long weekend with friends, scouting farms for their distant but approaching wedding, eating heirloom tomatoes and popsicles made of mangoes and chili. Next week I'm going to France, where I'll spend two weeks doing reporting and research for my book. These trips are exciting and fun, and I feel lucky to have the opportunity. But, ack, I'm exhausted just typing it all out.

I stayed here in New York for one weekend in the last month. I sat in Prospect Park with friends on the Fourth of July, a breezy but clear Saturday afternoon. We ate couscous and noodles with peanut sauce, homemade challah with butter and jam. I made a colorful chopped salad with basil and a balsamic vinaigrette. There was white wine and a buttermilk cake studded with blackberries and plums.

It was sunny and calm. Kids played frisbee nearby and I could hear a group of hip-looking twenty-somethings jamming on an acoustic guitar from behind a tree. I felt relaxed for the first time in a while. We watched the clouds overhead and I remembered to breathe. That night, I slept well in my own bed.

Crazy Chopped Salad with Basil and Balsamic Vinaigrette
Adapted from Peter Berley's The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen

This salad is large and colorful with the vibrant flavors of summer. I left out the radicchio and some of the herbs, simply due to the contents of my fridge, and a lack of desire to spend too much money on herbs that I would not have time to use again before my next trip out of the city. Even without the dill, mint and cilantro, though, the salad was refreshing and delicious.

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon whole-grain mustard
5 tablespoons olive oil

2 ears sweet corn
1 cup string beans, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
4 cups romaine lettuce, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
2 fennel bulbs, trimmed and chopped
1 head radicchio, cored and chopped (though I left this one out...)
2 ripe tomatoes, cored and choped
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 cucumber, seeded and chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
5 radishes, trimmed and chopped
2 tablespoons each of dill, mint, and cilantro (I left these out as well...)
10 fresh basil leaves, torn

Garnish: with fresh goat cheese, optional

-In a small bowl, combine vinegar, garlic, mustard and 1 teaspoon salt. Whisk in oil until creamy and emulsified, and set aside.

-Bring a large pot of water to boil and add salt. Add corn and beans when it comes back to a boil. Cook for 2 minutes and then drain. Shock in a bowl of ice water. Slice the kernels away from the cobs, and put both corn and beans into a large salad bowl.

-Add the lettuce, carrots, fennel, radicchio, tomatoes, yellow pepper, cucumber, onion, radishes and all the herbs to the salad bowl as well. Pour the dressing over and toss well. Add the goat cheese if desired. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Taking Scent for Granted

I have an essay in today's USA Today on the sense of smell. It was inspired by the recent controversy over the zinc-based cold remedy Zicam. But it’s mainly about the importance of scent, which is often only realized once it’s gone.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


I was in Louisiana last week. I flew to New Orleans early on Wednesday morning and was greeted by Matt, who looked unfamiliar in his dark green uniform, and by a breeze that was much thicker and warmer than New York’s.

After nine weeks of being ferried about from base to base in the US, Matt is now in the final legs of training for deployment and is scheduled to fly to Afghanistan this week. We stayed with his parents in New Orleans for his final five days off.

The first time I visited the city was just about a year ago, when Matt and I stopped for a few days in the midst of an epic drive across the country. I was set to begin work as a reporter for a paper in Northern California in the following weeks, and, we thought, what a great excuse to witness the expansive land along the way. On that visit, we toured plantations, ate fried alligator, and zipped past fishing cabins and cypress trees in a motorboat on a swamp tour. I was filled with happy expectation, on the eve of an adventure out west.

I felt differently on this trip. Though Matt is confident and excited for his next step, I’m scared. I knew little about the Army, about deployments, or even about the intricacies of this never-ending war before I met Matt, now almost 2 years ago. Beyond the newspaper articles and TV news segments, Iraq and Afghanistan are not present in the daily lives of many here in New York City, of my friends or my family. And that unfamiliarity makes being left behind all the more lonely.

But on this trip we kept busy. We had a lot of fun. We ate beignets and snowballs, went on a tour to learn about the “haunted history” of the French Quarter, and attended a pig roast on a humid afternoon in the sun.

To begin, however, we drove south to Cajun country. We stopped for gumbo and iced tea at a diner in New Iberia. We went to Avery Island, a salt dome a few miles in from the waters of Vermilion Bay, where we toured the Tabasco factory. It was hot, a bit drizzly, and smelled of peppers, salt and vinegar. That evening we stopped in Rayne, a small town in the heart of Cajun culture known as the “Frog Capital of the World.” Fittingly, we shared a plate of frog’s legs – crisp fried and meltingly tender – at the Frog City Cafe.

That night we stayed in a small, rustic cabin at Bayou Cabins in Breaux Bridge. As the sun set, we found a table down the road at Mulates, “The Original Cajun Restaurant,” where we ate ice cream with praline liquor and listened to rollicking live music by Lee Benoit & The Bayou Stompers. We watched as a serious group of older couples danced: the two-step, the waltz, the jig. They moved with a practiced but raw elegance. Everyone was having fun.

Matt and I attempted a few moves with some help from those already on the dance floor – “This is the two-step!,” they yelled, instructing us to watch their feet. We laughed a lot.

When the band took a break, we stood on the dance floor, perused their CD collection, and chatted with some other patrons. It came out that Matt was about to deploy and, later, when the lead singer announced that news to the room, everyone clapped. People came up to Matt, one after another for the rest of the night, to wish him luck.

The next morning we woke up early to a thick morning light over the bayou. We went to the main building for coffee, and watched the owners of the cabins make fresh seafood boudin. Crawfish, shrimp and crabmeat, along with rice and spice, were stuffed into sausage casings and carefully tied. As they cooked, they spoke with lyrical accents, remnants of a culture with deep ties to France. A couple that we had met in Mulates the night before was there, too, and we talked about Cajun culture, motorcycles and dance.

After a meal of the fresh boudin, scrambled eggs and toast, we went to pay our bill and begin the drive back to New Orleans.

“It’s been taken care of,” said the proprietor, a warm red-haired woman wearing dark green. “It was taken care of by the nice couple that just left. And by us. We went halves. Good luck in Afghanistan.”

She took us out to the porch and, holding our hands in hers, she said a little prayer.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Almond Cake

I baked a cake this afternoon. A moist, densely packed almond cake from my well-worn copy of Baking with Julia. I didn't really have a reason to bake. But I wanted to try this one, which is an element of the cookbook's intense Wedding Cake recipe, because I am the designated pastry chef for a friend's wedding late this summer. And I'm nervous. So I'm practicing. Every single cake I bake, I tell myself, will make the finished product just that much better. I have over three months. That's a lot of cakes.

This one is nice. It came out of the oven golden brown and buttery. Almost too buttery, I thought as I sneaked a little sliver to eat with my late-afternoon coffee. But perhaps that will go well later on with layers of lemon curd or blueberry jam, swiss or simple vanilla buttercream. I haven't yet worked out the details. But I know that there will be no fondant. Definitely no fondant. Though lovely on its own, I have a different idea for this particular cake. I'm having friends over for dinner tomorrow and I plan to use it, cut into small disks, as the base for a fleet of individual Baked Alaskas. We'll see how that goes.*

I don't know a whole lot about the science of baking, despite the fact that I love to make and eat cakes of all kinds. I certainly don't know much about the architecture of wedding cakes. But if the testing and tweaking involved in the creation of this one offers me the opportunity to spend more afternoons like today's, procrastinating on thoughts of the real world in my warm apartment, which smelled of almonds and butter, I'm happy to learn.

*Update: They went well. A little too much cake to ice cream ratio. But what beats miniature rounds of almond sweet, topped with strawberry ice cream and a cloud of oven-brown meringue? In my mind, not much.

Dense Almond Cake
Adapted from Baking with Julia

I adapted this recipe a bit, mainly due to ingredient and equipment restraints. Instead of going to the store to buy the extra 2.5 ounces of almond paste, I just used the 7 that I had. Instead of cake flour, I used all purpose. I didn't have a working food processor, and used a hand-held mixer to beat in the eggs rather than a paddle attachment on a standing one. In retrospect, there isn't much I did do exactly according to the directions. This is most likely the reason for my only complaint: the almost too-moist texture of my end result. But either way, I imagine, it's nice. Julia's original recipe is below.

9.5 ounces, or 1 packed cup, almond paste
2.25 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 large eggs
1 cup cake flour, sifted

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter a baking pan -- I used a single 9" circular cake pan, while Julia's instructions are for a number of different sizes for the construction of a wedding cake -- and then place a sheet of parchment paper, cut to fit, within. Dust with flour, tap out the excess, and put aside.

Put the almond paste, butter, and sugar in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process for one minute, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. The mixture should be mainly smooth, with a bit of a grainy edge.

Scrape this mixture into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the eggs and beat at medium speed until the batter is smooth. This should take about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides, again, as needed. Turn the mixer up to high in the final 15 seconds.

Remove the bowl and fold in the flour, a little at a time, with a rubber spatula. Spread into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for 1.5 to 1.75 hours, until the top is golden, the edges begin to spring away from the pan and the top is springy to the touch. For me, this took only one hour.

Transfer to a cooling rack and let sit at least 25 minutes, then invert, remove the parchment paper, and enjoy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


As many of you know, I’ve been writing about the sense of smell since 2005. It was then, in the crack of my skull against the windshield of a quickly-moving car, that my olfactory neurons were damaged and I lost the ability to detect the scent of brewing coffee, freshly baked bread, or a ripe bag of garbage. For a while, I lost the ability to smell anything at all.

I began this blog before that, however, when I could think of little more than the kitchen, sauté pans and paring knives. While scent was important to me as the gateway to flavor, it hardly crossed my mind that without a working nose a sip of coffee was simply hot and bitter and that a bite of chicken similar to one of cardboard. I had wanted to be a chef, and I began this blog to write about my work prepping and washing dishes in an upscale Boston restaurant. I had hoped the job would be the first step in many on my way to the professional culinary world. I wanted to chronicle the journey.

Without smell, however, my ability to perceive the world around me changed and, with that, so did my plans. I’ve written about it all along the way.

My fascination with scent began out of necessity. After the accident I suddenly realized that its absence sapped the texture from both physical experience and memory. It implied the power of what was once there. In the last four years my sense of smell, as I’ve written here, has slowly returned. While it is not completely restored—skunk sometimes smells of almond biscotti and I often can’t tell the difference between sage and thyme—I’ve watched the details painstakingly crawl back into my sensory landscape. Throughout this process, my interest in smell has grown far deeper.

And now I’m very happy to announce my current project, which I’ve been working on for quite some time but that only recently became official. I’m writing a book.

“In Search of Smell,” an olfactory memoir exploring the neuroscience, psychology, and social history of smell through the lens of my own story of loss and regain, will be published by the HarperCollins imprint Ecco. I’ll be reporting and writing for a little less than the next year. I’m very excited.

I’m not sure how this will change ‘My Madeleine.’ I plan to keep writing as I have been—about food, about smell, and about how they intersect. But perhaps now that my days are filled with research and interviews on scent, this blog will veer more towards food. Perhaps not. I just wanted to let you all know what I’m up to. And if you have any ideas or any stories to share with me, please let me know. I’m looking forward to learning so much more.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


I like to wake up early.

I work best in the pre-dawn, my dark studio lit only by the computer screen. I love the chilly moments before the sun comes up, before I begin to hear the clank and clatter of the rest of my building starting the day. I like to type with the radio on in the background, so low as to be almost inaudible. I like to move slowly, pausing to read the paper with a mug of coffee steaming on my desk nearby.

None of this is nice, however, when I’m hungry. My mind just doesn’t work without breakfast. As Lewis Carroll said so eloquently in Through the Looking Glass: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

For me, breakfast is usually oatmeal, served with a dollop of milk and some combination of berries, apple slices or nuts. Sometimes it’s a bowl of cold cereal and yogurt. There is toast with butter and jam on occasion, oranges often, and always a piece of chocolate or two.

I made my first batch of granola this afternoon. It filled my apartment with the scent of brown sugar and cinnamon, ginger and almonds. Tomorrow morning I’ll eat it with milk and a sliced banana. Though I will admit: it’s pretty nice as a late afternoon snack.

Adapted from Orangette

I adapted this recipe from Orangette, which is a blog (and now book) that I often turn to for trusted recipes ranging from chocolate madeleines to chickpea salads. I changed some things here due to taste preference: cutting down on both sugar and the amount of nuts and seeds. I changed some things due to convenience: a lack of brown rice syrup resulted in a lovely swath of honey.

Dry Ingredients:
5 cups rolled oats
2 ½ cups slivered almonds
a heaping ½ cup light brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp salt

Wet Ingredients:
a heaping ¾ cup unsweetened applesauce
1/3 cup honey (I used raw wildflower honey, which I had picked up when in Tennessee.)
2 Tbsp canola oil

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.

Combine dry ingredients in a bowl. Stir and set aside. Combine wet ingredients in another, smaller bowl. Stir. Add wet ingredients to the dry ones and stir to combine.

Spread mixture out on two rimmed baking sheets, and bake for 35 – 40 minutes on two racks set on the top and bottom third of the oven. Turn around the pans and stir every 10 minutes or so. When done, the granola should be a toasty golden brown. Take the pans out of the oven and let cool. It will still be a bit soft upon its exit, but crunches up while losing heat.

Store in sealed containers, or a plastic bag, as long as you like.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Ever since Matt was called back into the Army and my days were suddenly laced with heightened levels of anxiety, I have been able to smell more.

It’s not that I’m noticing the scent of new things. There are still smells lost to me, like that of water in a stagnant pond or of certain types of flowers, which remain imperceptible now four years removed from the accident that damaged my olfactory neurons. This heightened emotional state doesn’t make a difference there.

It’s the intensity that has changed.

Last Thursday night, for example, I walked into a hair salon in the East Village just as the sun was beginning to set. The anxiety, usually swirling somewhere in the periphery of my day, had moved front and center that afternoon when Matt told me his official deployment assignment: a year in the mountains of Afghanistan. Suddenly it throbbed in the back of my throat, and I decided to get my hair cut. I could use the gossip-rag-fueled distraction, I thought.

When I entered the salon, which had red walls and glittery lights, I was immediately hit by scent. It was pungent and floral with notes of jasmine and a lingering chemical twang. It filled my head like a honeyed cloud and I inhaled and exhaled slowly as I sat to wait on a bench by the window. I could almost feel the sweet, fatty globs of conditioner, which I watched the stylist squirt onto a customer’s head over by the sink, on the roof of my mouth. The salon has never been so intense.

Is it possible to have an increased sense of smell due to a keyed-up emotional state? I’m not sure. Of course, there are physical factors known to affect the one’s ability to smell. For example, changes in the level of hormones due to pregnancy are known to cause a heightened sense of smell in women. I’m not pregnant, so that’s not it. But I’ve been stressed out. More than usual. And the body reacts to stress in many intense internal ways, including the release of such hormones as cortisol into the blood stream.

In the years since the car accident I’ve noticed a strong connection between my emotions and scent. When moving through moments of depression—whether at the tortured end of a relationship or in the months after the death of a friend—I’ve noticed that I hardly register smell at all. Scents are there, of course. But they are muted, lacking all sense of intensity. Like my mood, the olfactory environment around me becomes flat and dim.

Similarly, during times when I’ve been happiest, like in the heart-flapping beginning to a new relationship, or in the brief nothing-months of summer before beginning graduate school, I’ve found that smell is all around me, striking in its strength.

Brown University professor Rachel Herz writes about the connection between smell and emotion in her book, The Scent of Desire. The connection, she says, “is not only metaphorical but also is founded on the evolution of our brain.” The limbic system, where emotion, memory and motivation are processed, first grew from a primitive olfactory cortex, she explains. “In other words, the ability to experience and express emotion grew directly out of our brain’s ability to process smell,” Herz writes.

I’m not sure what exactly is going on in my nose right now. But for the (big, scary) writing project I am currently working on, which I’ll certainly be telling you more about later, I’m jumping headlong into research on the sense of smell, and how the science and psychology of it all relate to my own experience. I hope to soon learn more.

There are some things I do know, however. I know that on an evening in February, a week after Matt had been called back into the Army and only a few days into the resulting, panicked search for a new apartment, I stood in a parking garage on the Upper West Side. I was on assignment for a long-term story on high school kids building robots and was reporting with a notebook and pen amidst a crowd of teachers, students and electrical wiring.

Inhaling and exhaling slowly against the back-lit scent of dank concrete, I caught a whiff of cologne, a hint of sweat and the strong aroma of motor oil. Someone to my left opened the plastic lid to a cup of hot chocolate and the scent—rich, sweet—hit me from several feet away. A moment later there was the peppermint breath of an interview subject chewing gum. Someone was drinking orange juice; I could smell the pungent citrus before I saw the container in a teacher’s hand.

Everything smelled. Everything. I could hardly concentrate in the face of so many scents. What’s going on here? I remember thinking. I was exhausted but alert, jazzed on anxiety and caffeine. I was in a dark, cold parking garage, but it had been a long time since everything seemed so bright.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I made empanadas on the first Saturday night of April. It was Matt's and my last evening together before he reported for duty in South Carolina, the first leg of a long journey that will soon take him to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

We had been staying at his family’s home in Tennessee for the week. It was just the two of us and we had no schedule. We spent days maneuvering the Appalachian Mountains in tennis shoes and evenings watching movies on the couch. We shopped at Walmart, ate pulled pork sandwiches in empty restaurants off the highway, and tried hard to avoid the rain. I cooked a lot.

But on Saturday night – our last night – I wanted something special. As the sun went down and the vaulted ceilings of the house grew shadowy and dim, Matt packed his deep green rucksacks with uniforms and combat boots. I needed to distract myself. I wanted flour on my hands and my head in a recipe.

We had eaten empanadas almost daily while in Argentina, where we had traveled in order to escape the manic schedule of New York, the thoughts of war and the empty bags waiting to be packed. While there I loved the dish with origins in Spain: rich, spiced fillings nestled within crisp pockets of dough. We ate them with beef, with chicken and with cheese. We ate them baked, piled on metal trays and plopped on the table at cafes. We ate them fried, wandering through antique markets in Buenos Aires, the whorls of my fingers left slippery with grease.

I started cooking late on that warm Saturday night. We had spent the afternoon hiking and were moving slowly. Thoughts of the next morning, when I would drop Matt off amid a long beige line of barracks at an Army base in South Carolina, were cold in the pit of my stomach.

In the kitchen I concentrated on the movement of my knife, the temperature of the oven and the scent of butter. First I mixed the dough Рa sticky, soft thing immediately sent to chill in the fridge. I saut̩ed onions and garlic. I watched the pink fade from a pan of crumbled beef. Olives and hardboiled eggs came later when, combined, I let it all cool on the counter.

“It smells good,” Matt called out from the living room where he was packing, surrounded by boxes of clothes and stacks of books.

I rolled the dough into small, flour-dusted circles. I filled them, pinched them, and brushed the sculpted mounds with egg wash. They came out of the oven crackly and brown. We ate them later with our fingers sitting on the couch.

These empanadas were good, though not great. I had miscalculated the ratio of dough to filling and could have used a bit more spice. That couch felt far from everywhere, especially Argentina. On our plates, butter replaced lard; bottles of Sam Adams took over for those of Malbec.

I woke up the next morning, like every morning, with my head in the crook of Matt’s arm. He smelled warm, like soap and fabric. But the now-familiar chill soon emerged from my stomach as I took a few deep breaths and remembered the day.

Before we left I took one last look at the kitchen. I emptied the dishwasher and brushed some errant crumbs of empanada dough off the counter.

That’s the end of it, I thought. No more distractions left.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Matt and I spent the better part of March in Argentina. We arrived in Buenos Aires on a bright Tuesday morning and spent the next couple of weeks exploring.

We paused in the city for a few days on both ends of the trip. There, on streets that often reminded us of Paris, we walked. We visited cemeteries and antique shops; drank espresso and wine.

Then we headed north, driving hundreds of miles in a tiny Chevrolet Corsa, often on dirt roads snaking through the foothills of the Andes. We visited the vineyards of Cafayate and the tiny mountain towns near Salta.

There were midnight dinners, eaten outdoors against the faint chill of a late-summer breeze. There was parilla - often steak, chorizo, or morcilla cooked over a wood-fired grill. There were tamales and empanadas, jamon crudo and queso fresco. Dulce de leche came on everything.

It was a wonderful, needed escape. Now we're back in the U.S., hit with the expected though unpleasant reality of Matt's impending departure. He is packing as I write. Stacks of books and clothes litter the apartment. More soon.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


On a cold morning in March of last year, Matt and I rode our bikes down the West Side of Manhattan. We pedaled from his apartment on the edge of Harlem to Penn Station, where we hopped on the Long Island Railroad. We were escaping the city for a few days, on spring break from graduate school.

I watched the sun rise over the Hudson as we passed through Riverside Park. It was early and I was hungry. We hadn’t had breakfast and my fingers, in too-thin cotton gloves, were numb. But I remember feeling content. I was on vacation and going on a trip. I was entering the final months of a master’s program that I found both challenging and fun. I had borrowed my roommate’s bike and relished the smooth sound of tire on pavement. And I rode next to Matt, whose brown hair was long enough to poke out from under his helmet and who, everyday, I grew to love a little bit more.

When Matt and I had first met, six months earlier, his hair was still short. He had it cropped close to the skull, reminiscent of his life before Journalism school: as an officer in the Army.

I knew about Matt’s past. I listened to his tales of studying as a cadet at West Point, of being stationed as an officer in Germany, of spending 2 years fighting in Iraq. But it was a foreign world to me, and difficult to imagine much beyond his words. When we met, the sand storms of Ramadi were thousands of miles away. Matt’s uniforms and combat boots were packed in boxes at his parents’ house in Tennessee. He wore jeans and T-shirts. His hair was soon long.

We rode our bikes quickly, gliding down 8th Avenue with wind at our backs. I followed as we weaved among cars and stopped at red lights. When we passed a large truck, double-parked on the west side of the street a few blocks above Times Square, Matt turned his head back towards me.

“That smells like Iraq,” he said.

I sniffed.

The scent of diesel permeated the air. It reeked of gas and metal and didn’t leave my nose for a few wind-swept blocks. For a brief moment, breathing in those thick and noxious fumes, I could imagine a world far away. One of sand and stone, heat and violence. One that smelled of fuel.

I told Matt about that moment on our bikes, late one night last week. I sat at our kitchen table while he stood nearby. We were drinking wine and talking about the war. My head felt encased in a cloud and I couldn’t breathe out of my nose. The wine tasted vague and sweet; the grape fell flat on my tongue.

A few days earlier Matt had received an envelope in the mail. It held a packet of papers: orders from the Army, written in a screaming capital-letter font. He’s been called back into service and will soon deploy to Iraq for his third tour of duty.

When he first told me we were sitting on the steps of our apartment building, one night after work. I immediately thought of that truck. Of that smell.

It was a scent that Matt knew well by the time he returned from his first tour.

“Iraq smells of diesel exhaust and human waste,” he said. “It’s like nothing else.”

Even between deployments, the scent was never far from his mind. Matt lived in Germany and would pick up whiffs here and there. But when he went back to Iraq for the second time, two years later, and he breathed in the burning oil, the gas, the waste and the sand it hit him hard. He immediately remembered things that had happened before, things that he hadn’t thought about since he last stepped foot in that country, things that happened back in 2003, when the US first surged into Iraq.

“It felt like I had never been gone,” he said, leaning against the kitchen counter.

Matt told me about the mornings in Iraq. Away from the baking sun the temperature would drop. The sun would rise, pink over the horizon. He would see birds flying into the palm groves near his base. The scent was still there, but it was better in the coolness of dawn.

“It was beautiful,” he said.

I listen. I try to imagine what it’s like. But sometimes words just aren’t enough.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


A cloud of powdered sugar at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans, where Matt and I spent Mardi Gras weekend.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dinner party, February 7: Hamachi tuna, pomegranate, toasted green wheat.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


On Friday morning I took the train out to Brooklyn, near where I used to live, to help my friend Ben in the kitchen. He occasionally sidelines as a chef, and we've worked together in the past. He was preparing for his most recent gig: an 80-person dinner party.

We cooked in the large, professional-style kitchen of the building where Ben holds his day job. I wasn’t there for long because I had to head off to an interview, but he remained the rest of the day, and the next.

Ben moves with confidence in the kitchen – bending over the stove, tasting sauces from steaming pots, maneuvering sharp knives as he fillets large cuts of fish, which are riddled in pink and red. I was not nearly so comfortable. It’s been a while since I last cooked under pressure, or for a group of more than 4 or 5. It’s been a while since I was last in a kitchen larger than the size of a breadbox, period. There, in the bright room that smelled of swordfish and lemons, the knife in my hand felt heavy and awkward. The pots were ungainly, and the stove, too hot.

I didn’t do a whole lot that afternoon. I pitted a crate of dates and helped to churn some ice cream. I seasoned ricotta with lemon zest, nutmeg, and salt. I poured a heavy-scented pot of garlic confit into plastic tubs to store. When I left, a couple of hours later, I took a deep breath. Everything felt unfamiliar.

I walked back to the subway on a street lined with brownstone apartments in Park Slope. I used to walk that way everyday, back when I lived in the neighborhood. The buildings are uniform in their russet-colored brick, locked together like a row of soldiers at attention. There is one block, however, where something is different. I had forgotten about it in the year and a half since I had moved. But walking by on Friday, I recalled: There is one building, toward the end of a block, which is painted a bright, screaming pink.

I stopped in front and smiled. I had forgotten about the pink.

A few years ago, on a Saturday afternoon in the fall, I strolled down this very block with a few friends, on our way home from Prospect Park.

“Why would someone paint their house that color?” a skeptical friend asked when we passed the home.

I shrugged. “Who knows,” I said.

“The people who live there must be crazy,” he concluded.

Secretly, though, I loved the house. It reminded me of summer and, perhaps, my childhood fascination with flamingos. Sometimes I even went out of my way to walk by its birthday cake-like exterior. It made me smile when I passed.

But this last Friday, heading away from the kitchen, I was surprised by the vivid pink. It didn’t seem right, bursting in color there in the leafless cold of a New York winter. It looked strange and slightly awkward. Like the way Ben’s chef knife had felt in my hand a few minutes earlier.

“I wonder who lives there,” I thought. I kept walking.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


I walked through the farmers market in Union Square yesterday morning. I was on my way to work, and wanted an apple to eat on the way. I passed candles and yarn, fresh eggs and loaves of bread. I passed plastic-wrapped slices of banana bread and vacuum-packed cuts of lamb. I stopped at one of the many stalls selling apples. There were long tables covered in boxes of fruit: green, red, and yellow. The air smelled of hot cider and of smoke, wafting up from a nearby cigarette.

I took a bite of a Macintosh as I walked west towards the subway. It was tart and sweet and my fingers soon grew numb. As I walked, I realized that I could also smell something else. It was something familiar, yet unknown, something biting and faintly metallic. Perhaps it came from a trashcan, overflowing on the sidewalk. Perhaps it was the exhaust from a taxi driving by. Like many new smells for me these days—smells that are there but not, recognizable but unknown, and perpetually on the tip of my tongue—I just couldn’t figure it out. Perhaps, I thought, it is just the scent of cold.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


My family was in town last week and on Saturday we went to Peter Luger, a wood-paneled steak house next to the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. There were plates of hash browns, bowls of creamed spinach and pitchers of mahogany-colored steak sauce. The slabs of bacon, plopped down on our plates by an appropriately uninterested waiter, were simultaneously crisp and tender. The porterhouse steak arrived sizzling and the “shlag,” a thick pillow of whipped cream that accompanied the key lime pie, was divine.

I have been a vegetarian in the past. I shunned flesh for a few years back the heart of my awkward teenage phase, straddling the transition from junior high to high school. I don’t really remember why I decided to stop eating meat. I think it had to do with learning the source of foie gras, or perhaps it was about veal. It had to do with rebellion, too, and the knowledge that my choices at the table could say something, even if I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. It certainly stuck with some people. Members of my extended family to this day, over a decade later, still ask me with their eyebrows raised: “So, Molly, are you eating meat yet?”

I also don’t remember why I later halted the vegetarianism. But I do know that it was on a cool fall afternoon in suburban Boston, circa 1997. It had something to do my friend Ashley, McDonalds, and a chicken sandwich. Perhaps I just remembered that I like meat.

Peter Luger's Steak House is a place for people who like meat. And we ate a lot of meat that night last week. The porterhouse – a tenderloin and a strip steak separated by the thick, T-shaped bone – was served, sliced and glossy pink-in-the-middle, with a spoonful of buttery pan juices. The bacon was slathered in sauce. We took some of the leftovers home with the intention of eating them for lunch the next day.

But the next day around noon we took the bag from the fridge and opened it. I could smell the salty fat, the thick flesh, and the buttery pan juices. I closed it again. Sometimes, meat and I? We just I need a break.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


I am sitting in an unfamiliar apartment. There is the hiss of a radiator, the clunk of shoes on the stairs outside. Through the window next to the kitchen table, where my mug of now-cold coffee sits, I can see pigeons and a light flurry of snow. The scent of both diesel and sweet-roasted nuts; the crowded, delayed Q train and the piles of discarded Christmas trees on the sidewalk scream it out: I moved back to New York. I am still getting used to the newness of it all.

It’s been a while since I last wrote, despite my promise to do so more. Between travel and freelancing, holidays and packing, I haven’t had much time to myself.

I did bake a cake, though, on a cold December morning before Christmas. It was a gingerbread cake: Moist, spicy, and studded with hunks of Bosc pear. It smelled sweet and rich. Familiar. We ate it warm, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream while watching a movie on a Monday night. We ate it cold, for breakfast one day and for lunch the next. It was gone before I realized that I hadn’t taken a picture. But it did make rounds through the Internet, leaving many beautiful images in its wake.

Dark Gingerbread Pear Cake
From Gourmet, October 2008

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses (not robust or blackstrap)
3 large eggs
1/4 cup grated peeled ginger
1 Bosc pear

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan, knocking out excess.

Whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, and salt.

Melt butter with water.

Beat together brown sugar and molasses with an electric mixer until combined. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well. Beat in flour mixture at low speed until just combined. Add butter mixture and ginger, beating just until smooth. Pour into cake pan.

Peel pear and cut into 3/4-inch pieces. Scatter over batter. Bake until a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool slightly.