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I have learned not to worry

The cakes are baked. The pickles are prepped. We’ve got nine cases of wine and 10 cases of beer lining the walls of our bedroom. (We had to store them somewhere, and we figure one room is as good as another, right?) My sister just arrived; my brother David lands tonight; and at least a dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins are already in town. It may still be six days away, but really, our wedding has already begun.

It’s a funny feeling. I hardly know what to say. To tell you the truth, I can’t believe I’m actually old enough to be doing this. How on earth did that happen? I mean, it was only a few days ago, I could swear, that I was fumbling through my first kiss in the foyer of my parents’ house. I can’t possibly be old enough to be someone’s wife, for crying out loud. Sometimes Brandon and I look at each other, shaking our heads, and ask, “Can this really be happening?” Of course it is, and happily so, but it’s a lot to wrap a head around. For me, a wedding means much more than just the starting line for a marriage. It means a lot of hope, and risk, and change, and growth. It means a new family, one that starts from just the two of us. It means walking down the aisle without my father, who has been gone for almost five years now. I never thought I would do it without him.

Lately I’ve been wondering what he would say about all this. He would be beaming, I’m pretty sure. He would have loved to know Brandon. They would have holed up in his office, thick as thieves, listening to Gene Krupa and talking about beer. It’s strange, but sometimes when Brandon laughs, he sounds just like my father. Sometimes I could swear he were still here, sitting right next to me. He would like to know, I think, that my mother gave me his wedding ring, and that we had Brandon’s ring made from it, melted down and remolded. I think he would like that, to be a part of us that way.

There’s an Alice Walker quote that I love, and that we’ve had printed on the back of our wedding program. “I have learned not to worry about love,” it reads, “but to honor its coming with all my heart.” It’s hard not to worry, quite honestly, in our time or anytime, about making this sort of commitment to someone. But I want to honor Brandon. I want to honor the part of me that believes. I want to honor what has come before us. I want to honor us.

I can’t wait to get started.

So away I go, friends, away to get married. I’ll see you in three weeks or so, after our honeymoon. If you should think of us this Sunday, send a little hoot or holler or happy wish our way. We’ll raise a glass to you.


All so pretty

Hello, hello.

I can’t stay for long, but I just had to pop in. I had to thank you for all your words of wedding wisdom last week. You’ll be happy, I think, to know that things are much better - much calmer - around here. It’s not that there’s any less going on, really. Our wedding is 12 days away, so there are plenty of things to do. It’s just that this week’s things are much better than last week’s. Then, it was phone calls and seating charts and numbers and floor plans. Now it’s cake and pickles and party favors. I’m up to my ears in brine and batter, but I’ve got to say, it’s pretty awesome. Really. You should try it sometime. It may be a little tiring, but I can think of few better spots for a mid-summer swim than a sea of vinegar and chocolate.

So if I’m absent around here these days, you know why. I’m in the kitchen. I’ve got my hair pinned up, the windows pushed open, and the oven on. I didn’t expect to say this, smack-dab in the center of all this hubbub, but I feel like a million bucks. I’m as happy as a pig in slop. When Brandon and I decided to make pickles and cakes for our wedding, I had no idea that it would make me so happy. People thought we were crazy to want to do this, to take on yet another project in the midst of The Project to End All Projects. I’m so glad that we didn’t listen. For all the heart and emotion wrapped up in a wedding, planning it is essentially a cerebral exercise - a bunch of enormous, unwieldy ideas jostling one another, racing to be made real. Baking and brining, on the other hand, are wholly, heavenly tangible. They’re slow. They’re messy. They’re slippery and sticky. They make a girl feel like an honest-to-goodness human being - which feels a lot better, in my opinion, than being a bride.

For the past few days, Brandon and I have been at home with the music cranked up loud, making a mess of the kitchen, cleaning it up, and making a mess again. Today, instead of trotting out a recipe as I usually do, I wanted to show you a few snaps of what we’ve been up to. I hope you won’t mind. I’ve just been finding it all so pretty.

Our wedding cake is one that’s familiar to a lot of you. It’s a riff on this cake, the fudgiest, tastiest, most worthy one I know. Its formal name is gâteau au chocolat fondant, meaning a soft, rich, melty-centered cake, but my friend Kate prefers to call it the “winning hearts and minds” cake. She’s got the right idea. It’s powerful, persuasive stuff. It’s not something you’d want to serve to someone you feel so-so about. It’s what you serve when you want someone to stick around. Like, you know, your husband.

I’m making twenty of them. It’s not nearly as bad as it seems, I promise. It’s actually a breeze. I just stir, bake, wrap, and freeze; stir, bake, wrap, and freeze. Their texture and flavor actually improves with a week or two in the freezer, which makes them the easiest, most unfussy wedding cake I can imagine. The work-to-pleasure ratio is about 1:10, I’d say. They’re not beauty queens, of course, but I don’t care a wink. I never liked white frosting much, anyway.

We’re also giving the recipe to our guests as part of their party favors. I think that’s kind of fun.

And the pickles! Oh, the pickles! We had to have pickles. It would have been wrong not to. We’re making a few different types, and we’ll eat them at the rehearsal dinner, a picnic in a park near an old red barn. We’re having pulled chicken sandwiches on salted rosemary rolls, piles of roasted vegetables, and a potato salad tossed with haricots verts and a grainy mustard vinaigrette. We’re hoping our guests will play frisbee and bocce, drink lots of beer, and eat jar upon jar of pickles. It all sounds awfully good to me.

We bought the carrots from our favorite local farm, Willie Green’s. If you were at the Phinney farmers’ market last week and wanted some of their carrots, I’m so sorry. We nearly bought up the whole basket. They were spindly and sweet, as small and delicate as a lady’s thumb.

And they’re just the right height to stand up, shoulder to shoulder, in a quart-size Mason jar.

We could have had our caterers make them, of course, but it would have been silly, since we’re regular picklers around here. Brandon made a brine with apple cider vinegar, garlic, mustard seed, and thyme. Because carrots are dense, they’ll take about ten days to come to their full glory. Which means that they’ll be ready right on time. Whew.

I’ll be back next week - one more time before I sneak away to become a Mrs. - and between now and then, I’ve got 13 cakes to bake. I can’t wait.

See you soon.


My lemonade fix

I’ve got to tell you something, guys. I don’t have much of an attention span at the moment. I’m so sorry. I can’t really write. I can’t really read. I can’t do much at all, save for clutch my cell phone and the folder containing our wedding plans. I sit down and try to write something, or maybe have a conversation with someone, but lo and behold, like it or not, my train of thought choo-choos straight to the wedding. I’m like a horse with blinders, only less obedient. All I can say is this: watch out. It’s best to keep your distance unless you’re prepared to discuss the following topics:

a) veils [I decided last Wednesday not to wear mine, and I feel so rebellious and free!],
b) party favors [ours are recipe cards for some of our favorite dishes, bundled with brown ribbon],
c) rented tables and chairs and linens [how does anyone keep track of all this crap?], and
d) the pesky Final Head Count, which eludes me still.

Oh, friends. I’m a total bore. I used to scoff at stories of wild-eyed brides, running amok with checklists and fabric samples, but now I think I get it. It’s sort of embarrassing to admit, but I know how they feel. Even though I like to think of our wedding as less of a production and more of a big party, it’s still, you know, a lot of work. It just is. It’s work for a good cause, but still, it’s work. The kind of work that involves such things as 39 yards of grosgrain ribbon. The kind of work that ties knots in your shoulders. The kind of work that gets you thirsty. Like, lemonade-thirsty.

When I was a kid, I had a special thing for lemonade. If I was lucky, my mother would buy a tub of Country Time® pink lemonade mix, the kind that came in a little cardboard cylinder that was supposed to look like a wooden barrel. I’d load up my glass until it was hot pink, sugared to the brim, sweet enough to make my throat burn. It was heaven. But it didn’t happen very often. More likely, I was on my own with lemon juice, sugar, and water. This being the mid-80s, however, our lemon juice came from a squeeze bottle, and our sugar was Equal®. I devised a standard formula. Into one hi-ball glass I would squeeze ten squirts of bottled lemon, three packets of sweetener, and water to fill. It was exquisite - a garish yellow, wildly sour, wildly sweet, the type of thing that, I’m quite certain, removes tooth enamel on contact. Luckily for all of us, I have since learned a better way to get my lemonade fix - sans dentists, sans mix.

The recipe in question comes from this month’s Gourmet, and with only a few minor tweaks. It starts with a simple syrup - water and sugar, boiled briefly to dissolve - infused with strips of lemon zest. Into that goes the kicker, a whack of fresh basil, and then it’s left to steep. Then you strain the syrup and mix it with doses of fresh lemon, cold water, and ice cubes. It may not be instant, per se, but once the syrup is made, it’s lickety-split to assemble whenever the mood strikes. (Which, if you’re me, is every day, around lunchtime.) It’s the lemonade we all know and love, only more sophisticated, with a sweet, herbal whiff of basil. I worried that it might be too fussy or fiddly, a good thing pushed too far, but I needn’t have: it’s still lemonade, only a little smarter. It’s lemonade with, say, a college degree. It’s just the stuff for a summer afternoon - preferably, if I may say so, alongside a salad of tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh basil.

And not to, you know, uh, bring it back (choo-choo!) to the wedding, but it’s just the stuff for that, too. Our caterers will be pouring two types of infused lemonade: a raspberry version for the rehearsal dinner, and a rosemary one for the reception. And thank goodness, since at this rate, my own supply will be long gone.

Basil Lemonade
Adapted from Gourmet, July 2007

I used tap water in both stages of the recipe below, but that’s only because ours tastes pretty decent. If you don’t like the flavor of your tap water, use spring water instead.

2 cups Basil Lemon Syrup (see below)
2 cups cold water
2 cups ice cubes
1 ¼ cups fresh lemon juice

Stir together all ingredients in a large pitcher; then pour into tall glasses half-filled with ice.

Yield: about 6 cups

Basil Lemon Syrup

I love the combination of basil and lemon, but you could also make a tasty syrup with mint, or rosemary. If you use mint, you could probably use the same amount, or maybe a bit less. If you use rosemary, I imagine you’d need much less – maybe only one medium-size sprig for an entire batch of syrup. If you used any more than that, it might taste too piney.

Or, hey, if you want to take things in a different direction, you might try tossing in a fistful of fresh raspberries, instead of an herb. I haven’t yet tried it, nor do I know exactly how our caterers make their raspberry lemonade, but what’s the worst that could happen? Really.

Also, Gourmet says that you could combine some of the syrup with vodka and fresh lemon juice to make a summery gimlet. That would be for those days, of course, when lemonade just doesn’t cut it.

2 cups water
1 cup granulated sugar
4 (4- by 1-inch) strips lemon zest
2 cups packed fresh basil sprigs

In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar, and zest. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat, add the basil, stir to combine, and let stand at room temperature, covered, for 1 hour. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl and chill until cold, about 1 hour. Strain the syrup through a sieve into an airtight container, pressing hard on and then discarding the solids.

Note: The syrup will keep, covered and chilled, for up to five days. The recipe can also be easily doubled.

Yield: about 2 ½ cups


Every spare penny

I don’t think I’ll ever get over morels. Even when I’m old, with wrinkles and a cane and clothes that smell like moth balls, I’ll still squeal with glee at the sight of them. They remind me of something I used to say about the Golden Gate Bridge, back when I was in college in the Bay Area. I loved that bridge. I remember telling someone that I could live out the rest of my earthly days without ever feeling blasé about it: its rich shade of orange-red, somewhere between rust and brick; its fat cables climbing through the fog; the way I always felt when I drove across it, as though I were really going somewhere, somewhere important, somewhere dreamt-of and written-about and pined-after, and, for a little while at least, mine. I feel that way about morels, only minus the orange-red part, and the cables, and the bit about going somewhere. I don’t think I’ll ever be blasé about morels.

This is one of those times, in all honesty, when I feel silly to be sitting here, writing this. I mean, the dish I want to share with you is sautéed mushrooms served on toast. It’s a topic that hardly warrants a recipe, much less a whole treatise. But one day a couple of weeks ago, Brandon and I happened upon a crate of local morels at the market, and on a whim, we asked for a half-pound. It was only eight dollars – a steal, people – and so we shook the vendor’s hand and hurried them home, giggling all the while like a pair of thieves after a particularly good robbery. I threw a knob of butter into our big, heavy skillet and set it on the heat, and when it had turned to a fragrant slurry, I tossed in the mushrooms. They sizzled for a minute and then set to softening, wringing themselves out like tiny sponges, and when they were nearly dry, I stirred in a spoonful of crème fraîche from a carton that I found at the back of the fridge. We piled the cream-slicked morels atop slices of toasted bread, and then we sat down to eat, and that’s when a silence fell over the table. No, scratch that. It wasn’t silence, because there was some contented sighing too, and I believe that someone – possibly me, in fact – banged her fist on the table in swoony disbelief, mid-swallow. Brandon announced that he felt like a king. I nodded in agreement, smacking my lips, and pronounced myself his queen. We chewed, and we sighed, and we slapped our thighs, and so it went for at least ten minutes, the two of us, totally and completely silly with satisfaction.

Hence this treatise today, and a recipe of sorts, because since that night, I’ve been socking away every spare penny to buy more morels, so long as the season lasts. It made sound spendy, but I’ll tell you a secret: Brandon has been out of town, and buying morels for one is much easier than buying them for two. In fact, it’s downright cheap. (Plus, I can eat them atop the hippie-style wheat bread I like to keep around, and no one is here to scoff or complain. Phew.)

And there’s something about eating a food so rare, so sought-after, and so drop-dead simple to prepare. Warmed in butter, morels relax and bloom, releasing their rich, woodsy flavor to mingle with the sweet, toasty fat. A glug of cream may seem a tad over the top, but for me, it’s the clincher. Stirred around the pan, it picks up any slips and nubs of flavor stuck to the surface, and it slides around the mushrooms like a soft, velvety cloak. All told, it goes down astoundingly well with a gin and tonic, just so you know, and a green salad is nice too, and piles of summer fruit for dessert. Sighing is optional, but suggested.

Creamed Morels on Toast

Lately I’ve been eating as many morels as my wallet will allow, and when it comes to cooking them, my best advice is this: keep it simple. Many people like to add minced shallots or garlic, or a squeeze of lemon, or chives, or wine, or whatnot, but not me. I say, let ‘em be. Their flavor is delicate, nutty, and fleeting, and it needs only butter and a little cream to coax it out. I cooked some today with a small shallot – which is pretty classic, recommended by countless recipes and cookbooks – but its sweet, pungent fragrance just smothered the poor things. From here out, I’m sticking with my usual, bare-bones method, outlined below. It’s only a rough guide, and you need not really measure: you could use more or less of nearly any ingredient, and the end result wouldn’t suffer. You could even use another wild mushroom, if morels aren’t available.

Oh, and about the toast. If you’ve got a nice, chewy-crumbed country loaf lying around, that’s perfect. Or a baguette. Either way, I like to take a slice, drizzle it lightly with olive oil, and slip it under the broiler until it has just a touch of color. In a pinch, though, even my regular old sandwich bread does a pretty fine job. It’s just some hippie-dippy sprouted wheat stuff, but toasted – and buttered, or left plain, either way – its earthy flavor and nubbly crust make a nice foil for the rich mushrooms.

About 3-4 ounces fresh morels
About 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1-2 Tbsp. heavy cream or crème fraîche
Salt, to taste

Clean the mushrooms with a small brush – a pastry brush works nicely – to remove any dirt and debris and hidden woodland cargo. Cut them in half lengthwise, and brush out their hollow centers as well. If they seem sandy, wash them briefly in water, and drain them well. [Ideally, though, you don’t want to get them wet unless you absolutely have to.] Set them aside.

In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the morels and cook, stirring occasionally, until they begin to release some water. Reduce the heat to medium, let the mushrooms reabsorb their juices, and continue cooking until they are nearly dry. Add the cream or crème fraîche, season with a dash of salt, and stir over the heat for a minute or so, to incorporate the cream. Serve, with additional salt as needed, over toast.

Note: Like many things, these morels are even better the next day. I like to reheat them briefly – in the microwave; gasp! – so that their juices flow freely, and I’m continually stunned by how much fuller their flavor seems after an overnight rest in the fridge.

Yield: 2 small servings, or 1 bigger one, or 1 small serving with delicious leftovers