Thursday, October 28, 2010

On Anxiety, and Pie

Yesterday I wrote a piece about a pie.  It was a cute piece about Thanksgivings growing up and the mornings my father let me eat leftover dessert for breakfast as a little girl.  I had planned to post it here last night.  It included my favorite recipe for pumpkin pie, which I baked after running the half marathon last week, and then again the other day.  (It’s really that good.  I swear.)  Sweetened with maple syrup, the filling is creamy and light.  The crust is crunchy and thick with butter.

But then I had an anxiety attack.  Sitting at the table after dinner, my heart began to beat quickly.  There was a shooting pain in my left shoulder and arm, and I felt like I couldn’t breath.  I’ve never experienced anything like that before.  Terrified that something was terribly wrong, that my heart would explode, I waited for it to pass.  And it did.  Today I’m totally fine.  But there it is.  The anxiety is back.

Last year I was anxious all the time.  For good reason.  Matt was in Afghanistan and I was on deadline writing a book.  I was terrified that Matt would die, and that my writing was no good.  I felt positive that when Matt came home and I turned in the manuscript, I would never have anything to worry about ever again.  Ever!  Again!  My inner monologue would never raise its staccato pitch; I’d never wake up at 3 a.m. with that wild low thrum in the back of my mind.

Well, I was wrong. Duh.

I don’t know exactly what I’m anxious about right now.  I’m pretty sure that it involves finishing one project and beginning something else.  It probably has to do with living in a new city, around new people, doing new things.  There are the usual distractions: money and health insurance, therapy and exercise and love.  But when it comes down to it, I’m living in Boston with my boyfriend, who is safe and sound and whom I love.  My book is available to pre-order on and my family is healthy and close.  I make a mean pumpkin pie.  I’m really lucky, I know.  But I’m also anxious.

And I thought I’d write about this rather than my memories of Thanksgivings past.  Not because I have a solution or even a plan for these feelings. There’s no tidy ending in sight. But after the wonderful things that have happened to me in the last two years - regaining my sense of smell, writing a book, Matt’s safe return from war - I’ve felt like my life has been neatly wrapped.  I was hurt and I recovered.  I was scared and now I'm safe.  Sometimes I feel like I have been tied so tight with a pretty pink bow that there is no more room for hurt or pain, confusion or anxiety. 

At least there’s always room for pumpkin pie.

Maple Pumpkin Pie
Adapted from Gourmet

Pastry Dough
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 ½ sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
7 – 8 tablespoons ice water

Whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl.  Using your fingertips, quickly blend in the butter until the mixture resembles a course meal.  Add the ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing with a fork or your fingers to combine, until the mixture begins to form a dough.  Pour the dough out onto the counter, and smear is around with the heel of your hand in a few forward motions to bring it together. Form into a ball and flatten into a disk.  Wrap in plastic and chill for at least an hour.

1 cup maple syrup (Grade B suggested)
2 cups canned pumpkin
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup whole milk
2 eggs

Remove the dough from the refrigerator.  On a lightly floured surface, roll it out with a rolling pin into a thin disk, a few inches wider than the pie plate you plan to use.  Place in the pie plate (I used a 10-inch), and then shape and crimp the overhang into an even decorative edge.  Chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a heavy saucepan, gently boil the maple syrup until a small amount dropped into a bowl of cold water forms a soft ball, which is around 210 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer.  Let cool slightly. 

In a bowl, whisk together pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger, salt, cream, milk, and eggs.  Then, whisk in the maple syrup.  Pour into the pie shell.  You can brush the edge of the pie dough with an egg wash here—one egg yolk whisked together with a tablespoon of water—if you want. 

Bake in the middle of the oven for one hour, or until the filling is set but the center still shakes slightly.  (The filling will continue to set as the pie cools)  Transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


On Sunday I ran a half marathonIt was my first.  I learned a lot.

I learned that to get to a half marathon, one that is located in Lowell, one that begins at 8 a.m., one with a lot of traffic, you have to get up really early.  Four in the morning early.  I learned that eating one breakfast in the pitch-black pre-dawn and then another right before the 8 a.m. start is a good idea.  But I also learned that it would have been a better idea to pack something else, one of those high-sugar bars, one of those caloried Gu packets that I saw empty and littered all over the ground on the course, because halfway through my run I was hungry again.  Really hungry.  I learned that running among hundreds of people can be tricky, with all the pacing and passing and maneuvering curves.  I learned that I’m really competitive, even when I don’t mean to be.  I learned that pushing myself hard—harder than I expected—is painful.  But also awesome.  I learned that I love to run.  And that I don’t love to race.

So there you have it.  My first half marathon. I ran it in an hour and fifty-four minutes.  The little medal that they hung around my neck as soon as I finished is now hanging on my fridge.  I’m glad I did it.  I’m glad it’s done. 

When Matt and I arrived at home after the race on Sunday, I limped up the stairs, chugged some water, and I took a nap.  A long nap.  And then I got up.  And then I cooked.  My mother and her boyfriend, Charley, came over for dinner.  They brought a nice bottle of wine and a hunk of my favorite cheese.  I made Chicken Normandy, a lovely dish rich with apples, apple cider, brandy and cream.  I served it over puddles of creamy polenta and alongside green beans, which I simply sautéed in butter and seasoned with salt and pepper.  For dessert: pumpkin pie.  Whipped cream.  Sleep. 

Friday, October 15, 2010


Last weekend, my friends Ben and Philissa got married.  Matt and I flew down to North Carolina for the event and stayed in a hotel near Chapel Hill, which was packed with Tarheel fans for the Saturday game.  It was warm down south—up into the 80s during the day, a sudden step back into summer.  It’s hard to imagine as I think about it now, sitting at my kitchen table in Cambridge, listening to the cold autumn wind whip past my window outside.

I had been to Chapel Hill once before.  I went with the future bride and groom for a weekend last summer, when Matt had already been deployed to Afghanistan for a few months.  It was a sweet gesture, bringing me on their trip to find a spot for the wedding.  I think they hoped to distract me from thoughts of war, to show me where Philissa grew up, to eat some good food.  I was perpetually anxious, however, and always on edge.  I’m not sure I was all that much fun.  I remember going on long runs through unfamiliar neighborhoods. The sky seemed always on the cusp of a storm.  While Matt was in Afghanistan, I had a hard time staying still.  

And despite going from venue to venue, farm to inn to antique home on that first trip, I had a hard time imaging that this wedding could actually take place.  To imagine that would mean to imagine the end of Matt’s time at war.  The months still left of his deployment seemed to span out before me forever right then.  We still had to get through the rest of the summer, and then the fall, and then the winter, and then the spring.  Hundreds of days of the constant unknown, the persistent fear, were still to come.  Imagining an end point seemed impossible. 

But then it happened.  Matt came home.  And now Ben and Philissa are married. 

The wedding was held outside at a country inn, among willowy trees and Bocce courts, a photo booth, a klezmer band and a whole of lot of family and friends.  The ceremony was beautiful and the reception fun. 

At the end of wedding, as the sun began to set and the day careened toward evening, Matt and I sat next to each other under the tent where they had served lunch.  I could hear laughter and a bit of music, the clanging of the caterers beginning to put away their wares.  The temperature was sinking fast, and the mosquitoes had just come out to bite.   The next morning we would have to wake up before 4 a.m. in order to make an early flight back to Boston.  But right there, right then, we just sat, his arm warm around my shouldersIt’s easier, now, to stay still.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


I took the apples that Matt and I picked last weekend and turned them into sauce.  My mother has been making homemade applesauce every fall since I was small, and now October doesn’t feel real if it doesn’t include a steaming bowl or two. 

 My mother’s recipe is simple—more like a technique, really—and doesn’t take much time.  It requires a food mill, which can be a pain.  But I’ve lugged mine around from apartment to apartment over the last five years just for this recipe here.  Not to overdo it on apples, autumn, and their aromas, but as this sauce cooks, the house fills with the welcome scents of cinnamon and nutmeg, the ripe sugar bouquet of long-baked fruit. 

I like to eat it warm in a bowl with a dollop of vanilla yogurt on top, carefully constructing every spoonful so that it includes a small portion of each.  It’s a magical combination, really – hot and cold, creamy and smooth.  As legend has it: this was the only way that my little brother would eat fruit for years. 

adapted from my mother

1 bag of apples (however many, whatever kind you want) (here, I used a mixture of McIntosh and Macoun)
2 cinnamon sticks, broken in half
ground cinnamon, to taste
ground nutmeg, to taste

Chop each apple in half, and then the halves in half, and then the quarters in half at 90 degree angles.  (Otherwise known as 8 chunks.)  Place in a large pot.  Add the cinnamon sticks and then a healthy dose of ground cinnamon, as well as a few shakes of ground nutmeg.  Add a quarter cup of water to keep the apples from scorching at the start.  Cook at medium-high heat, covered, until the apples begin to bubble away.  Turn down the heat to low, and let simmer until soft.  Then, run the mixture through the food mill, discarding the stem, seed, and skin detritus that is left behind.  Shake some additional ground cinnamon on top.  Serve with vanilla yogurt. 

Thursday, October 07, 2010


Matt and I went apple picking last Sunday afternoon.  We picked Macouns, McIntoshes and Empires at an orchard in Harvard, Massachusetts.  It was chilly out, like fall is supposed to be, and I wore a thick yellow sweater that my grandmother gave me for my birthday.  The orchard store, where a blue grass band played live on the porch, was surrounded with the bright autumn colors of pumpkins and gourds. The air smelled of dirt, grass, and the vaguely fermented twang of wrinkled apples rotting on the ground. 

I thought about the first autumn after the car accident, the one when I could no longer smell.  Then, I watched the landscape change from the window of my bedroom at my father's house, where I recovered from knee surgery.  I could see the leaves fade from green to earthy shades of red and the grass wither and die.  But the season changed without me.  I could see it, but I couldn't feel it - not without the familiar scents of apple cider, butter crusts, and decaying leaves.  Like watching a movie, I was present but not participating.  Interested but not engaged.  The world was no longer as I recalled.

These apples that Matt and I picked this year are particularly delicious.  They are fresh and crisp, practically bursting with juice.  I've been eating a lot of them raw.  But last night I cooked pork chops with onions and apples, a recipe adapted from Martha Stewart online.  The chops browned in butter and oil, the onions and apples caramelized in the leftover fat.  Tonight I'm making an apple sauce, and then an apple pie. I'm happy to again possess fall.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Friday, October 01, 2010

Road Food

I spent four days this past week in Maryland, skirting around the suburbs of Washington D.C.  While there, I did some research, conducted some interviews, and attended a fundraising event.  I drank a lot of coffee and ate way too many granola bars.  One night, while visiting with an old friend, I went out for Burmese food, which was good and spicy, and then out for a bunch of beers, which certainly took off the edge.  It was a good trip, a productive trip.  I’m happy I went.  But I drove there from Boston on Saturday, an epic 10-hour slog, and then back again Tuesday in the constantly spitting rain.  I never want to climb into a car again.

The drive on Saturday was especially rough.  I left early that morning feeling foggy and dazed.  The night before, Matt and I had a few friends over for dinner.  I cooked: spaghetti and meatballs, arugula salad with almonds and a balsamic vinaigrette, a tarte tatin.  A bit (well, a lot) of red wine.

The meal went well.  The meatballs were tender; the spaghetti sauce was rich and silky with a stick of butter.  I love a salad of greens and a simple vinaigrette, the crunch of toasted almond here and there. 

And the tart was good.  It wasn’t great.  It had the potential for greatness, yes.  I used a recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  La Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin.  An “especially good tart if your apples are full of flavor,” Child writes.  “It is cooked in a baking dish with the pastry on top of the apples.  When done, it is reversed onto a serving dish and presents a lovely mass of caramelized apples.”

But I was stupid.  I loaded the apples that I had peeled and thinly sliced—an entire 4-pound bag from the farmer’s market—along with the melted butter, sugar, and a blanket of pastry dough made from scratch, into a baking pan with a removable bottom.  A removable bottom? It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m not sure why.  Because when I took the tart out of the oven, all bronzed and steaming a caramel autumn scent, I saw that all of the dense buttery goodness, the kind that should have clung to lowest layer of apples, almost candy-like, had seeped out onto the baking sheet.  Gone. 

Before I served the tart, I salvaged it with a dusting of powdered sugar and a few minutes under the broiler.  With a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, believe me, we were all okay.  But I fell asleep late that night feeling vaguely disappointed. 

Fast-forward to late on Tuesday afternoon, when, after the final hours of what felt like a never-ending drive—my legs in cramps from operating the clutch of my car in traffic, my stomach empty but for weak gas station coffee, my podcast supply severely diminished—I finally arrived home.  I parked, unloaded my bags, walked up the stairs to my apartment, and immediately opened the fridge.  There wasn’t much in there.  Nothing, really, but the remains of the tarte tatin.  It was few days old and quite stiff in its chill, but I cut a slice, sat down at my desk, and ate it with my hands like a piece of pizza. 

Now that was great.