First, let me say how humiliated I am that I haven't done a new blog post since (OH my GOD, this is ETERNITY in Blogland!) … since last July.
Actually, I did do one. It was, juicily, about older babes who are still sex-positive in their late 50's and onward, sometimes way onward. I number myself, gladly, among this group, despite being 58 (see left; the 'after', by David Koff). This is an age when, had you told me when I was a teenager (see right, the WAY 'before', by Vernon Tucker), I'd still be desiring, enjoying, and having sex, I would have said 'ewwww'. You may have seen this post, in late March, 2011, but you probably didn't: I had it out there for about 15 minutes before I pulled it. (Here we have the down-side of being able to push a button that says 'publish', instead of working with an editor and having a delay of years, in the case of books, or months, in the case of magazine pieces, to reconsider, rework, and get an outside opinion).
It wasn't inhibition that caused me to pull it; rather, though it was a good post, I decided I hadn't quite said what I wanted to say in the way I wanted to say it. Sigh. If nothing is wasted on the writer, that includes drafts, and the hours of times spent on them, and other pieces — any length, any genre — which may or may not finally work out to one's satisfaction. Yet each one increases one's development as a writer. It's that old practice makes practice thing again.
So, I'm reworking the older-babes-in-sexland thing. Consider this reference as a preview of coming (yes, that was intentional) attractions. And, while I would have prefered ending this long near-silence with a bang (yes, intentional too), I am going to start instead with a whimper.
With two whimpers. Followed by a groan of a pleasure and ah-hah, now-I-really-get-it wave of observation. (All of which also pertain, at times, to sexual activities, now that I think of it.)
This first whimper is metaphorical: the subject of this post, chocolate- and writing-related, is seemingly much more minor than the highly-relevent-to-baby-boomers SHOUT of sexual seniority.
The second is a real, actual, literal whimper, one I remember making shortly before indulging in a little strictly legal but serious self-medication. Which, when you hear the circumstances, I think you'll agree was more than justifiiable.
This was was a while back, too: in the, oh gosh, probably late 1980's. If you think this makes both the pained whimper and its palliation memorable, you are right.
So memorable that it all surfaced as I read the following innocent, offhand Twitter post this morning, from @simmertildone: "I know many writers report that when running or driving or gardening, they're 'writing.' How about 'standing in kitchen eating brownies?' "
Well, yeah. Why would that be any different?
Digression: I would be remiss if, before telling you more about the whimpers et al which that tweet pulled for me, I didn't introduce @simmertildone, aka Marilyn Naron, a little further. Marilyn (pictured left; from her site) lives in Lawrence, Kansas. She describes herself on Twitter as "Recovering pastry chef. Writer, blogger, dumpling-eater and chief dog-walker."
She also has a blog, also titled Simmer Til Done. I will add that she A) updates her blog somewhat more frequently than I do, B) writes with a nonchalant, charming, hey-we're-just-hangin'-in-the-kitchen together personal voice, witty and gently self-deprecating, about C) not just food, with lust-wothy recipes that actually work, and musings on same, but stuff like her daughter, Josie, the writer Judy Blume, and the odd non-craft craft. Too, she happens to have a black Labrador named Cleo — the same name as our family's black standard French poodle when I was growing up.
Something else about her blog: while really good, professional-quality photographs have become almost de rigeur in
food blogs, Marilyn's are over-the-top. You might drool over them; you might gaze at them as longingly as Cleo the dog does here, at some brisket (which almost though not quite looks good to me, and I've been a vegetarian for more than 30 years — this is Marilyn's photo, obviously).
But she (Marilyn, not Cleo) also does drawings, too. Her Baker's Alphabet, which I think one of these years will develop into a children's book, if there is any justice, is what first led our paths to cross. See her sketch below. But that's another story.
Now you might have been wondering about how a pastry chef could describe herself as "recovering," which is going to slowly lead us back to the point. Marilyn elucidates this statement on the "about" page of her blog: "I’m a pastry chef – but I don’t work in restaurants anymore, so you can just call me giver of dessert happiness." She also gives more details on Lawrence, Kansas, "the coolest college town in America", which she calls affectionately, as perhaps many there do, "Larryville."
As you'll see, I really, really understand the "don't work in restaurants anymore" bit. Which leads us back to whimpering. End of digression.
I have written here before about my former life as a writer-innkeeper (at Dairy Hollow House, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas), and the truly insane (as it appears to me now, from this remove) daily schedule I kept, more or less as follows:
- Somewhere between 6:30 & 9:00 am: get up, breakfast, a little time with Ned.
- 9:30 am to noon: write
- Noon: eat lunch, sometimes with Ned.
- 1:15 to 2:15 pm: nap (very occasionally, not nearly often enough, with Ned).
- 2:15 to 3:15: work out, then shower, dress.
- 3:55 pm-ish: walk to the inn, a few minutes away. As I wrote in that previous post " …as I approached the inn's door, I'd feel my other, non-writer life, as an innkeeper, kick in."
- 4:00 pm: get into the inn's kitchen, and start cooking dinner for the evening's guests — anywhere from 15 to 45 people.
- 5:00 pm: Ned would arrive, to maitre d' (a rare, if blurry, in-action photo of him, right… imagine! Phones still had curly cords, and look at that antique computer! Oh, Ned.)
- 7:00 pm: dinner at the inn; Ned "front of the house", me "heart of the house", waitstaff the intermediaries
- 8:30-9:00-ish pm: "make the rounds," as Ned used to call it, visiting with guests at the table usually as they were having dessert.
- 9:30-ish pm: staff dinner
- 10:00 pm at the earliest, 1 or 2:00 am latest, leave inn/restaurant/kitchen, Ned arriving usually an hour or so later
Any sane person who says, "I've always wanted to have a restaurant" should read this schedule as a cautionary note.
And I feel sure any person, of any degree of sanity or insanity, who has worked in, or is presently working in, a restaurant, is probably heaving a sigh, relating all too well, and maybe having their feet give a twinge or two in symapthetic recall.
And anyone, period, who didn't understand why Marilyn refers to herself as a "recovering pastry chef" — well, now maybe you get it.
But: I was productive in those days. As a writer, as well as a cuisinere ('chef' always felt a little high-falutin' for what I was, but 'cook' a little too greasy-spoonish; 'cuisinere', French for 'cook', felt, maybe irrationally, just right).
With so very little time to write then, there was always a heavy-handed external deadline: I had to go cook at the inn, in a very few hours. In memory, I did not waste time. I did not procrastinate much or at all. I did not play computer Hangman or Bedazzled like a person could do if they didn't have to be up at their restaurant by 4:00 (This is theoretical, not confessional, please understand. Just because I have a lot more time to write these days now than then, doesn't mean that I… Oh, okay, it is confessional.) (Left, me in the wonderful writing studio, Moonshine Cottage, where I worked so hard during the inn days. Will I ever have another writing room that suits me as well? Seems unlikely. I still have the sweater I wore in that picture, though, and the mug that's in my hand. Odd what lasts and what doesn't, isn't it?)
Back then, I think the writing time kept me cooking and the cooking kept me writing.
But of course those solitary mornings of writing rested on uninterrupted time. And that was the great gift Ned, my dear late husband, gave me, on an ongoing basis. (Left, on our wedding day.) For while he appeared at the inn at 5:00 (or at least, was supposed to; he was frquently late, to the ire of our front desk people), he did all, or almost all, of the other stuff before then.
Other stuff like fixing things, doing repairs, maintenance around the property. Paying bills. Stacking the wood. Meeting with purveyors and staff. Occasionally firing or hiring someone. Covering for a dairymaid who had a sick child, or a front desk person on vacation. Doing legwork for the eternal, infernal City Council and Planning Commision and Parks Commission meetings that anyone who did anything in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, was periodically having to go before. Making sure vehicles worked, getting windowshields replaced if a rock dinged the glass. And on and on and on.
The minutiae that is the basal metabolism of life doubles when you are an innkeeper, if you take seriously the safety, needs, and delight of your guests. Ned and I did. Ned also managed to scoop in civic duty and volunteerism; he himself headed up a comission, the Historic District Commission, known to us in-house as "the H-Dick." (Right, just about a month before he died, withe writer Pat Carr, cooking up big plans about the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow — which is another 'nother story.)
Actually, I don't know how either of us did it.
Where this already tenuously balanced schedule fell apart for me was when or if Ned was out of town. Which brings me to the literal whimper.
One morning he was out of town. It was spring, almost Easter, or Mother's Day — one of those Sundays where there's a big-ass brunch crowd was coming up, occasions where we dropped brunch into the usual go-round of meals we served the general public (as opposed to just inn guests). I think also it was a Friday morning. Since Eureka Springs was and is primarily a town built around a weekend influx of visitors, I knew I'd be cooking late and hard that evening, and Saturday, with that killer turn-around-get-up-early-and-do-a-bang-up-brunch on Sunday.(This picture doesn't exactly match, but I've been wanting to use it for awhile, and it is of a brunch at the inn, held circa 1980 as a fundraiser for the Arkansas Literacy Foundation. You can see me, seated, the strap over my white-shirted shoulder. And you can barely see my mother, Charlotte Zolotow, cattycorner to the right, gray-haired. Sitting at the head of the table? Then-Senator Dale Bumpers. And standing? You guessed it: a very young, impassionaed, articulate Hillary Clinton.)
But back to the day of the whimper, when Ned was out of town. Although he may have been just in Iowa, seeing his parents, if memory serves this was one of his longer trips.
Many years, if we could afford it, he went for two weeks or so to South India, a place where, improbably, he felt wholly at home; a place he so loved that he had wanted his ashes put there (as I did, in fact, in the Pamba River, right, as he had requested).
I have the feeling that this particular Friday was in the middle of such a trip; I do remember he was not available even by phone.
In summary, then, a long, very long, weekend, made longer by whatever would fall to me with Ned being gone. I knew that Friday morning would be my last alone-time/writing time for the next several days. So I was camel-ish… drinking long and deep at the oasis of solitude, because it was going to be awhile.
Except. I was interrupted mid-drink. That morning was one of those where everything that could happen, did happen, most of it typically in Ned's bailiwick. A Dairymaid
called to say that tehe toilet in Summer Meadows (left) toilet was backed up. Ned could have unblocked it; I called a plumber. Then the front desk called; Becky, Ned's replacement as maitre d', who was going to be in in the late afternoon, had some kind of family emergency; who did I suggest we call to step in as replacement for her? Then the front desk called again; didn't I remember that Rose, the prep cook, had a doctor's appointment and had to leave early, meaning I would have to come in early, to prep for the dinner we'd be serving (and I'd be cooking) that night? Well, no, I hadn't remembered. (Had I been told? If so, I hadn't written it down. Mistake.)
Okay, I remember thinking as I struggled with resentment at having to leave my precious cocoon early; I might as well try to get in a good space about all this, I'm going to have to do it anyway, and I want good vibes in my heart and in the food I cook, yes? Yes. I thought all this as I opened the French doors from my studio to step out on the porch and walk across the valley to the inn. Or, wait, should I take the car? I'd probably be prettty damned tired by the evening's end…
That's when I saw, on the doormat, a gift from Z-Cat, the then-resident calico: a small dead bloodied snake. Oh-kay. Shake off the doormat, dropping the dead snake into the shrubbery.
And then, I looked down to to the Chevy Blazer, parked below in the driveway: ah yes, of course. Flat tire, passenger's side. Well, I was going to walk to the inn anyway, right?
When I got to the kitchen, David Crough, our erstwhile handyman, popped in to tell me the Eco-lab repairman who was supposed to have come the Monday before and put in a replacement part had not, in fact, come on Monday, and the odds were slim or none that we could get him on the Friday before a holiday weekend which meant the odds were also slim or none that we would have a working commercial dishwasher on this upcoming, particularly busy weekend.
This was the moment I whimpered.
I remember clearly exactly where I was: facing the long, stainless steel table in the kitchen, my back to the little window where guests could look in and I could look out. My feet were on the webby black plastic matting that, at the end of each evening, got run through the now non-working Eco-lab. I remember that it was about 11:00 in the morning.
And suddenly one clear, urgent thought clear appeared as if it had unfurled in 36-point lettering on a screen in my mind above my head. It was this: "I wonder if we have any Double-Density in the walk-in?"
Double-Density was Double-Density Chocolate-Mocha Walnut Torte, one of our two go-to regular chocolate desserts at the inn (the other was Chocolate Bread Pudding Maurice, with Raspberry Sauce). Double-Density was a very adult chocolate dessert; really, you ought to've been over 21 to order it.
It was a very, very bittersweet moist chewy cake with a little inn-made coffee concentrate added to the batter; something like a very rich, extra thick brownie in texture, baked in a round, deeper than usual cake pan. When we reversed it out of its pan, we iced it with a rich-as-sin, velvety-smooth, also very, very bittersweet glaze, shiny-glossy, pretty much just bittersweet chopped melted chocolate (Vahlrona, we used) and sour cream. Fairly liquid when its main ingredients were first whisked together, the warm glaze was poured over the cake. There it firmed nicely; just enough to set, yet soft enought to stay menltingly voluptuous. And toasted walnuts, hand-chopped, pressed into the glaze around the cake's sides, completed the cake. (I know you'd like a picture. I don't have one. I am not going to make a D-D now in order to take one. But… the Harvard Square, left, made by famed chocolatier L.A. Burdick, is pretty durned similar in taste and texture, though it's much more refined-looking than our D-Ds were; too, the D-D's were cut in triangular wedges. The L.A. Burdick in North Walpole, New Hampshire, is about a 20-minute drive from us here in Vermont, making Harvard Square or any number of wondrous pastries or confections a dangerously doable local possibility at any time.)
Curiously, my always-active sweet tooth largely abated during the restaurant years. I suspect this was because I did so much baking and dessert-making and plating I got sated by osmosis. My taste, after a long night working the kitchen, ran to the cool, tart, icy sorbets we made in-house (the basil being my particular favorite, followed by the ginger).
But. On the rare night when I really wanted a serious dessert, it was always an after-dinner, late night thing.
And on the really, really rare occasion when I had a yen for a serious sweet midday, it would be after lunch, maybe with a cup of hot tea in the late afternoon. (Still true, to this day.)
For I didn't eat sweet stuff early. Still don't. Not ever. No continental breakfast or danish for me. Have, usually, something proteinaceous, some form of whole grain, and a piece of fruit: typically, a soft-boiled egg or some sauteed tofu, a piece of multi-grain toast, half a fresh grapefruit or a fresh orange or a cup or so of berries. That combo, varied slightly, seems to be just about the perfect fuel for me.
But that particular morning in the way-back, it was 11:00, lunch still a good hour and a half away. Yet stressed beyond endurance, what appeared?
"I wonder if we have any Double-Density in the walk-in?"
Without hesitation I walked across the concrete floor, past the Eco-lab, up the one step to the pantry. Turned left at the bin of onions and the potato bin, past the shelves loaded with jewel-like homemade/inn-made jams and preserves, and to the walk-in, pulling up on its long handle.
And there it was. Two slices left, from the day before yesterday, so it wasn't going to be served tonight anyway.
I carried the pan back to the stainless steel table. I cut a thin slice off one of the two large slices, got out a fork, and put a bite directly in my mouth.
And as immediately as a sedative injected directly into a vein would hit, I instantly felt noticeably, remarkably better. Ahhhh. I mean: as that sugar-chocolate-buttter combination, at the verboten time of day, melted into my tongue, at that milli-second it acted like a drug. Calm and soothe kicked in. I'm sure I closed my eyes for a moment, easing into that sudden Laz-Z-Boy of relaxed feelings and pleasureable sensation. And that was when I let out that soft groan of relief.
But even as I stood there, relieved, drugged with and by chocolate, I was at the same time having the ah-hah moment, with the part of me that stood outside watching and observing.
Being a food-writer (and cuisiniere) I knew cognitively something about chocolate. That its family name is theobroma, which means food of the goods. That in Aztec society priests, warriors and royalty drank a thick, frothy, bitter beverage called chocolatl/xocolatl. That this was cooked to melt the chocolate but served cool, and was spiced with chiles, vanilla, and achiote. It was said to be an aphrodisac, a stinulant, an elevator of mood; it was said to strengten one, and banish fatigue. I knew Montezuma (right) supposedly drank 50 small golden cups of it a day; his court as a whole is credited with downing 2000 cups daily. (But, I always wonder when I read figures like this: who was there actually counting? Are we supposed to believe the accounts of conquistadors, as notable for their bragging as their cruelty?)
Anyway, I knew that recent neuroscience had borne most of this out. That chocolate contains a host of phyto-chemicals associated with mood, emotion, addiction: though I couldn't have named all of them offhand, I knew that at least four of them — phenylethylamine, theobromine, anandamide and tryptophan — did trigger mood enhancent, via neurotransmitters in the brain's own private pharmacy. Phenylethylamine, for instance, is a brain-manufactured chemical similar to amphetamine, kicking off feelings of giddiness, attraction, euphoria and excitement, while phenylethylamine open's the brain's apothecary to release pleasureable mesolimbic dopamine ( a substance which, by the way, peaks at the moment of orgasm; there you go). Tryptophan is an amino acid associated with calmness and relaxation, while anandamide triggers a mild version of goofy well-being that some compare to a mild marijuana high. Yet the theobromine, plus a little caffeine (much less in a cup of coffee) balance things out with their wakifying effect. To boot, it has more anti-oxidants than red wine, or green or black tea.
I knew all that about chocolate abstractly. But until that controlled-substance-like first bite, I had never experienced it. I've heard it said that however true something is, if you merely believe it, it's a lie. The truth comes only via experience.
So there it was: the wham of that chocolate kicking in, side by side with epiphany. Oh! Now I know what all that theobromine stuff is about, and what the heck do you know – it's true!
(And although I didn't know it them, chocolate was also going to be discovered to have a prophylactic effect on heart disease, promoting heart health in effect by Roto-Rootering the arteries.)
And yet, did the exact what and why of theobromine at all really matter to me? Not much. Not at that moment. As Emily Dickinson said:
The pedigree of honey
Does not concern the bee;
A clover, any time, to him
That stressed-out morning, in time, place, and circumstances utterly removed from my present life except by memory, that glorious Double-Density kindly, sensually played clover to my bee, and made it possibile for me to begin that intense weekend un-freaked-out.
Un-freaked-out, I called the Eco-lab people, threw myself on their mercy, and got them to come out and fix the dishwasher. Meanwhile, David Crough changed the flat tire, and I started cooking.
So. In answer to Marilyn's tweet: yes, while I do mentally 'write' while walking, weeding, driving, I also, as this post proves, do it 'standing in kitchen eating brownies.' Because, when don't I do it?
Even if there is a 25-some year gap between the two, it — one's whole dense, bittersweet, nut-studded, messy, satisfying wedge of experience — remains alive and vital somewhere within, waiting to be called forth by the act of putting it into written words.
P.S. The recipe, please… this is from Passionate Vegetarian.
DOUBLE-DENSITY CHOCOLATE-WALNUT ESPRESS0 TORTE
Serves 10 to 12
Chocolate for grown-ups: no-kidding, we-really-mean-it, bittersweet; an intense chocolate experience, with a faint touch of coffee. Make it with cold-filtered coffee concentrate if you use such a system, or do a quickie version using concentrate from freeze-dried coffee crystals. It's a one-layer, intentionally very heavy cake; please note there's no baking powder or soda. Fairly simple as tortes go, its dense, moist fervently chocolateness put it is right up there. Be sure to pay attention to the notes on pans and baking time. And try the variations, especially the Chocolate Torte Ibarra.
8 ounces best quality unsweetened chocolate
1 cup butter
4 tablespoons boiling water
3 tablespoons freeze-dried coffee or decaffeinated coffee crystals
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1 recipe Creole Chocolate Icing, below
2 cups walnuts, toasted and chopped
Preheat oven to 375.
Melt unsweetened chocolate and butter together over very low heat in a heavy saucepan, stirring near-constantly. Remove from heat and set aside to cool for a few moments.
Meanwhile, combine boiling water with freeze-dried coffee or decaffeinated coffee crystals to make a thick coffee syrup. Set this aside.
Set up an electric mixer, and add eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt to the bowl. Beat together, on high speed, at least 8 minutes, or until light, fluffy, and nearly doubled in bulk. (A hand-held mixer takes a little longer than a stand-type mixer).
Add half the coffee concentrate (the remainder goes into the icing), and the somewhat cooled chocolate-butter mixture, and beat until ingredients are combined.
Remove mixing bowl from stand or put away hand-held mixer. Stir in by hand, using a wooden spoon, the unbleached white flour.
Spray a 10-inch round layer cake pan, preferably one with fairly deep sides, very well with oil. Do not substitute a pie tin, or any round pan with curved sides; do not use a glass pan.
Turn batter into prepared pan, and bake about 35 minutes, or until surface is dulled and edges of cake have started to pull away from pan. It will still look a little underdone in the middle; ignore this. Do not overbake this cake; its moistness is an essential part of its charm.
Leave cake in pan for ten minutes after baking. Run knife around edge of pan and reverse onto rack. Let cake cool completely, and ice with Creole Chocolate Icing, pressing toasted walnuts into the top and sides of cake. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.
Creole Chocolate-Espresso Icing
Makes Enough for 1 Double-Density, with a bit leftover
Though simplicity itself to make, in flavor and texture this is the most sophisticated and divine icing you will ever taste. Astute Dairy Hollow readers will recognize it as a variation of one which appeared in our first cookbook. Very bittersweet — again, adult chocolate, not kid stuff. Once you discover this you might not make any other chocolate icing, ever.
12-ounces semisweet chocolate (either chips, or diced squares of semisweet)
1 cup sour cream or whole milk plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Leftover coffee concentrate from above recipe ( 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons)
Melt the semisweet chocolate over hot water, stirring often.
When smooth, remove from heat and stir in sour cream or whole milk plain yogurt, vanilla, and coffee concentrate.
Beat by hand until smooth and glossy. Let cool, stirring occasionally, until of spreading consistency, about five minutes.
Pour/ spread over cooled torte.
Bittersweet Chocolate Torte Ibarra : Mexico’s favored with-chocolate combinations are brilliant, unique, complex: ground almonds, canela cinnamon, and distinctive Mexican vanilla extract. I developed this excellent, even more rich variation of this cake to take advantage of these complex, multi-layered flavors as my contribution to a South of the Border menu’d dinner benefiting the Arkansas AIDS Foundation, with the flavors, held at Eureka Springs’ Center Street South, now Caribe. It's now neck and neck with the previous as my favorite chocolate torte.
First, coarsely chop 2 cups whole almonds into chunks in the food processor, and toast them at 350 about 8 minutes or until fragrant and lightly browned. Return them to the processor and pulse again, until they are a ground to a coarse powder. Set aside.
Now, follow the previous recipe, but omit the walnuts, as well as the coffee in both cake and glaze, and substitute pure Mexican vanilla, available at any Hispanic grocery, for the conventional vanilla extract. Cut the flour back to 1 cup. Add, with the flour, ½ teaspoon canela cinnamon (available in Hispanic groceries, and sometimes in bags at the spice sections of supermarkets), and ½ cup of the toasted almonds. Bake the cake, and make icing, as directed. Press remaining toasted almond powder into top and sides of frosted torte.