Thursday, January 17, 2008

Why We Write in Coffee Shops

I don’t even drink coffee. Well, perhaps I drink the occasional decaf latte, but that doesn’t count. Without lots of milk and sugar, I don’t even like the taste. However, I am seriously thinking about moving my “office” up the street and around the corner to our neighborhood WiFi hotspot with hot beverages and peach muffins. In other words, this place. “Why”, you ask. Let me tell you.
This week was supposed to be the great restart of work on the book. After close to two months of holiday excuses, I was ready to devote a minimum of six hours a day to writing. But then I had to do some laundry, and the house was a mess, and the dog needed walking, the contractor needed calling, and then this… the basement needed demolition.

We live in a seventy something year old house with issues. We love the location since we can walk to shops, restaurants and even a movie theater. And mostly we love the house. It has character. However, it also has a leaky basement, and we need the space. So, the contractor is coming tomorrow to look at the foundation, and we have learned from experience that they aren’t satisfied with seeing the problem from the outside. They need to see it from the inside.

Unfortunately many moons ago a previous owner did a poor handyman’s job of “finishing” the basement. In an effort to make it a bit less gloomy, without spending any real money, we then painted the dark paneling and buffed it up a bit. Finally, mother nature had her way with us and dumped about four feet of water down there.

So, like I said, the contractor is coming tomorrow and he needs to see the problem from the inside. Well aright then. Guess we have another excuse not to write and the need for a trip to the hardware store for one of these.

After donning the respirator, eye protection and my spiffy never used before work apron, I picked up a pry bar and had at it. I’m sorry to say I didn’t burn many calories. The cheap paneling came away from the walls like dried out french toast (or maybe melba toast).

And what did I find? Fortunately, there wasn’t any slime involved, just lots of nasty matted insulation. And what’s this? Is that daylight I see? Yes, those spots that looked like small cracks from the outside are actually gaps in the brick large enough for well fattened squirrels to climb through. Kind of makes me want to nail boards over the cellar door before we go to bed tonight.

But the good news is that it only took a couple of hours. Now I can spend the afternoon writing. And what’s the other good news? The contractor is coming tomorrow and I have another excuse.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A Great Start to the New Year

What makes for a perfect start to the New Year? I used to think it was a hot date, a reservation at a fun party spot, a fancy dress and lots of champagne. Now I’m less interested in being on the roads with other people of poor judgment.
Since I left the high-tech corporate world to focus on writing and fiber art, I am aware of a more natural eddy and flow to life. I still have hard charging weeks when I am struggling to make a deadline or complete a project, but I no longer suffer withdrawal pains if I don’t get on an airplane for three weeks.

Anyway, I have decided that the only thing about my old New Years equation that is right is the champagne. New Years for me has become a few days to get away, relax, and recharge. And, I have found the perfect place to do it.

For the past three years, our good friends have invited us to their mountain house in North Georgia. Yes, I know these are just foothills and not real mountains, but indulge me. There is enough hill and dale to let you know you’ve had some exercise when you go for a walk, and there are wild things in the woods. The only sound at night is the water tumbling down the hill, the occasional hunting owl, and the crackle of the fires (one in the great room, one out on the screened porch, and one down below in the outdoor fire pit).

That’s the setting. Next comes a good mix of people. This year we had four couples ranging in age from twenty something to fifty something, plus one delightful five-year-old, and four dogs. Our backgrounds ranged from aspiring animated movie maker to banker, with all sharing a broad appreciation for the good things in life – movies, music, food, beer, wine, whiskey, and good conversation. Oh, yes. And college football.

Add in a little entertainment including a marathon game of Phase Ten, a few rounds of dominos and quiddler, and you have the start of a truly relaxing weekend. Along with a bloody mary or mimosas every morning, we were treated to some great food. We opened our eyes to an amazing sausage frittata and fresh pears, as well as Amaretto French toast to make you moan. We warmed ourselves with great bowls of Southwestern Soup, and ate traditional black-eyed peas, collards, and pulled pork for the New Years Day feast.

In between, we noshed on an amazing array of appetizers. Caviar and sour cream on boiled new potatoes, steak and lobster on a stick, gooey brie in hot pastry and pancetta and cheese pinwheels hot from the oven. My own contributions were simple, but a couple of recipes were requested and so I’ve reproduced them for you here.

I hope they will inspire you to gather your best and most interesting friends around you to enjoy a weekend or a meal. In my opinion, nothing beats it for a great way to spend your time away from the desk.

Chocolate Stout Cake (serves at least 12)

Ingredients for cake
2 cups stout -- such as Guinness
2 cups butter, unsalted
1 ½ cups unsweetened cocoa powder
4 cups all-purpose flour
4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 ½ teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
1 ⅓ cups sour cream

Ingredients for icing
2 cups whipping cream
1 pound bittersweet chocolate -- chopped

Directions for cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter three 8-inch round cake pans with 2-inch-high sides. Line pans with parchment paper and butter the paper (or just line the pans with waxed paper as my mother used to do).
Bring 2 cups stout and 2 cups butter to simmer in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add cocoa powder and whisk until mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and cool slightly.
Whisk flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt in large bowl to blend. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sour cream to blend. Add stout chocolate mixture to egg mixture and beat to combine. Slowly add flour mixture and beat briefly, then use spatula, folding batter to combine completely.
Divide batter equally among the prepared pans. Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean (about 35 minutes). Transfer cakes to rack to cool for 10 minutes. Remove cakes from pans and cool completely on racks.

Directions for icing:
Bring cream to simmer in heavy medium saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chopped chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. Refrigerate icing until it cools enough to be spreadable, stirring occasionally (about 2 hours).
Place one cake layer on plate. Spread 2/3 cup icing over the top. Top with second layer of cake. Spread with 2/3 cup icing. Top with third layer and spread remaining icing over top and sides.

Cover and keep at room temperature. Slice and serve with vanilla ice cream.

Chopped Salad (serves 8-10 as side salad)

Ingredients for Salad
4 cups romaine lettuce -- chopped
1 large tomato -- chopped
1 tablespoon capers
¼ cup feta cheese -- crumbled
¼ cup Olives, Kalamata -- pitted and chopped
1 medium cucumber -- peeled, chopped (remove seeds before chopping)
4 ounces chickpeas, canned

Ingredients for Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons onion -- minced
1 teaspoon garlic -- minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ medium lemon -- juiced
splash white wine vinegar
salt and pepper -- to taste

Directions: Assemble salad. Dress with vinaigrette and serve immediately.

Gingerbread Pancakes (serves 4-6)

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup dark brown sugar -- packed
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon -- ground
1 teaspoon ginger -- ground
¼ teaspoon nutmeg -- ground
⅛ teaspoon cloves -- ground
½ cup water
½ cup coffee -- room temperature
4 large eggs
½ cup butter, unsalted -- melted and cooled
¼ cup lemon juice -- freshly squeezed

Heat griddle and spray with cooking oil. Warm oven to lowest temperature.

Whisk together dry ingredients. Whisk together wet ingredients. Combine and let stand 15 minutes (batter will thicken).

Pour 1/4 cup batter onto griddle and cook until bubbles appear on surface and undersides are lightly browned (1 to 2 minutes). Flip pancakes and cook until cooked through and edges are lightly browned (1 to 2 minutes more). Transfer to platter and keep warm in oven.

Serve with butter, maple syrup and whipped cream.

Note: just in case you were wondering, a little whipped cream never hurt the dog.