Monday, May 28, 2012


I read somewhere that you should never try a new recipe if you plan on sharing the end result with others. The logic behind this advice is intended to save you from the humiliation of failure should your kitchen experiment go awry. While I'm sure this suggestion has proven helpful to some, I wholeheartedly disagree. There's no fun in making something safe—a proven winner—because the whole joy of cooking (at least for me) comes from my connection to the process, not the end result. Julia Child was quoted as saying, "The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a 'What the hell?' attitude." My thoughts exactly. That being said, I've had my fair share of flops, but they've taught me to let go and move on (which has only served to further fuel my courage in the kitchen).

So when my friend Paula asked me to bring dessert to her cookout, I was inspired to try and make Tiramisu. When I embark on this kind of challenge I usually pull a few recipes and start to get a feel for the ingredients and the process. Tiramisu is an icebox cake, so there's no cooking involved, just assembly. How hard could it be? And with espresso, chocolate, heavy cream, mascarpone cheese, and brandy as the ingredients, how bad could it taste, even if I screwed up? After flipping through a few books, unable to find a recipe that really spoke to me, I just decided to wing it. What can I say—I like to live on the edge.

Be forewarned: there's enough espresso in this recipe to grow hair on your chest and enough brandy to give you a bit of a buzz. This dessert is not for the vice-free partygoer. This dessert is the life of the party.

First, choose the dish you're going to use. I initially pulled out a large 8 x 12 inch baking dish but as I started to place the lady fingers in the bottom I realized that I wouldn't have enough cookies to fill the entire container. I ended up choosing a slightly smaller, oval dish. Whatever you have will work perfectly.

1 package of Savoiardi cookies (Italian ladyfingers)
3-4 shots of espresso (you could probably use strong coffee as a substitute)
1 pint heavy cream
8 oz mascarpone cheese
6 T brandy
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup sugar
any good quality chocolate you have laying around (to shave on top)

Prepare the espresso first so it has time to cool (you can let it rest in the fridge while you get everything else ready). Whip together the heavy cream, mascarpone cheese, brandy, vanilla, and sugar until soft peaks form.

Now for the fun part! Pour the cooled espresso into a shallow bowl. Give each lady finger a quick dip in the espresso (on both sides) and place it in your dish of choice. The key to the dipping is to keep it brief; do not let your ladies bathe too long or you'll get soggy tiramisu. Layer the bottom of your dish with the caffeinated (or caffeine-free) cookies and then pour half of the whipped cream concoction overtop. Shave a little chocolate over the cream.

Ellie, my assistant, surveying the ingredients.

Two happy blondes.

Repeat the entire process, creating a second layer. Place in the fridge for an hour or (if you're a planner) overnight.

Over at the barbecue, I admit I was the tiniest bit anxious about how my dessert would actually taste, but when those vrttis (thoughts, mental interruptions) popped up I just doused them with my vodka tonic and continued having fun. By the time I got to the Tiramisu it was half gone. It was a huge hit! A few people told me they loved that the ladyfingers still had texture, and I enthusiastically explained to them the secret of the "quick dip". They were amazed.

I loved this dessert so much I decided to make another one today; this way I get to share the recipe with you and I get to eat it again at my family's Memorial Day barbecue. (It's not all looks, folks.) I was so excited to make it I forgot to add sugar to the whipped cream, but I'm confident it will still taste good. Attitude, after all, is as important as the ingredients.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fettuccine with Asparagus and Poached Egg

Last weekend I made dinner for my mother on her boat. It couldn't have been any more perfect just to float on the Hudson and enjoy a homemade meal. What I loved about the whole thing was how it all came together. Meandering through the farmers' market only a few hours earlier (inspired by the fresh produce and the fact that I had the weekend off) I was suddenly struck by the desire to cook. I bought my ingredients—asparagus, eggs (from Grazin' Angus, the best eggs ever), strawberries, and goat cheese—called my mom, and the rest was history.

And what could've been better than fettucini? You're right, nothing. While the water was boiling, I chopped the asparagus into bite-sized pieces. The asparagus were added into the boiling pasta during the last two minutes of cooking. As I drained the pasta and asparagus, I reserved one cup of the water to help make the sauce. 2 T of butter, a few T of parmesan, salt, and pepper went into the pot with the pasta and asparagus, and I added enough of the reserved pasta water to help the sauce coat the fettucini. I plated the pasta over at the boat, where my mother poached two of those amazing Grazin' Angus eggs. Lots and lots of freshly ground pepper gave it the perfect taste. I could hardly contain myself as I split open the poached egg and all of the neon orange yolk oozed down into the layers of fettuccine goodness. Each bite was like heaven in my mouth.

The goat cheese was crazy good. There are no words. 

For dessert we had fresh strawberries, which actually tasted like strawberries, a detail that I know must resonate with everyone. They were sweet and tart and bright red. A little shortbread cookie was the perfect compliment.

I loved the simplicity of this meal. As I stretched my legs out, staring out over the city skyline, I felt so grateful to have allowed myself the luxury of getting swept away by my creativity. I'm learning that creativity is similar to meditation. Trying to be creative prevents me from being creative.You can't force it to arrive, you have to invite it in and then get out of the way. Totally relaxed and inspired, I found myself saying, "More of this, please." Allowing rather than doing makes the space for life to unfold on its own. It's my new summer mantra and I'm excited to see where it will take me.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

(Easter) Sunday Brunch

It's been a million years since Easter, which makes writing about Easter pretty useless at this point. You are probably as interested in bunnies and Easter eggs as you are in, oh let's say, your taxes. I feel the need to explain. I've sat on this post since, well, Easter because it kept needing more time in the oven. I decided to just wait until the cake tester came out clean rather than trying to pawn off some uncooked post about a holiday that has long since passed. Ironically, in waiting for my thoughts to bake, I came face-to-face with the exact struggle I was trying to articulate—guilt over not doing "enough"—and to prove (to myself) I have truly learned my lesson, I've decided to move full speed ahead with this post. If you keep reading you'll find a recipe for buttermilk biscuits, so at the very least I hope you'll be inspired to put on an apron this Sunday and whip up some brunch.

This Easter, I reluctantly accepted that I would need to let go of my penchant for perfectionism because I didn't have the time to do everything I would've like to have done. The entire holiday weekend was jam-packed with commitments, not the least of which was a five hour anatomy lecture I had to teach on Easter Sunday. No matter how I sliced it there just wasn't enough time for elaborate entertaining. Instead, I rummaged under my bed and found the remnants of decorations from those years when I must have had a lot of spare time on my hands. Peering through the dust bunnies, I found some baby chicks, birds' nests, and robin's eggs. I felt both grateful and disturbed to have had a small forrest of creatures living under my bed.

The large branches I bought at the Union Square Green Market made a statement without a lot of effort. Wait, what am I saying? Carrying them home on the PATH train was an all-out war; I'm fairly certain I took a few peoples' eyes out that day. When I finally arrived home I realized that I could've cut the same exact branches off the trees in front of my apartment (although I think it would've been illegal to do so). Drama.

On the menu front, I decided to stick with something relatively simple—scrambled eggs and bacon—until the shame of not doing enough prompted me, at the last minute, to make homemade buttermilk biscuits. Thankfully they were a breeze to make. They even gave the bacon a run for its money.

Homemade Buttermilk Biscuits

8 tablespoons cold butter, cubed
3/4 cup buttermilk
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 t sugar
1 T baking powder
1 t salt

I made the dough right in my food processor. Combine all of the dry ingredients. Add the butter and pulse until it's the size of small peas. With the blade running, pour in the buttermilk until the dough just comes together. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and kneed with your hands. Roll out and cut out the biscuits with the rim of a glass (unless you happen to have biscuit cutters laying around). Bake for 20-25 minutes at 350, or until the bottoms are golden brown.

Breakfast tasted so yummy, in that good 'ole fashion Southern kinda way. I could've used a Bloody Mary, but other than that it was a lovely Easter. In retrospect, I'm thankful to the Universe for forcing me to abandon my typical "go all out" approach to entertaining (or life, come to think of it). I learned a lot by observing myself through the process. Admittedly, I felt anxious about doing less. My emotions waffled between pride (for attempting to let go) and inadequacy (What are we going to do without homemade menu cards? How will we manage?). I'm so used to trying to accomplish it all that I felt naked without a long to-do list. Some compassionate post-game analysis revealed that perhaps, to some degree, I see the success of a perfectly executed to-do list as a benchmark of my own worthiness.

The pillows I bought at West Elm, which I carried back to Jersey along with the deadly branches, because I felt like I hadn't done enough to decorate.

I'm currently reading Brené Brown's book, The Gifts of Imperfection, and it's calling me out on the shame I feel about not doing enough. As a shame researcher, it's only fair that she uses examples from her own life to illustrate her points. She writes, "...there are days when most of my anxiety grows out of the expectations I put on myself...I want to show the world how great I am at balancing my family and career. I want our back yard to look beautiful. I want people to see us picking up our dog's poop in biodegradable bags and think, My God! They are such outstanding citizens." Frankly, it's just so nice to know I'm not alone.

Make no mistake, if I had had time to dye my Easter eggs with a homemade concoction of extracted organic beet juice, I would have. Spending hours lost in my creativity is extremely relaxing to me—it helps me refill my well. But then there are those times when I just have way too much going on and I can't, for example, make homemade buttermilk biscuits and then write a timely (and perfectly perfect) blog post about it. It kills me, and it's hard to let go of feeling like I'm not doing enough ... of feeling like I'm somehow not enough for not doing enough. Sometimes I force myself to find a way to do it all, but then I black out and wake up months later covered in paper mâché, or sprinkles, wondering what the hell happened to me. Brené sums up this need to keep up with my expectations: "When we struggle to believe in our worthiness, we hustle for it."

All of this self-study reminds me to be aware of what's motivating my efforts. Why do I do what I do? If it makes me truly happy, it becomes an uplifting experience; it brings me closer to myself. If I feel like I have to do something in order to be enough, it only makes me feel more inadequate. I'm trying to edit my overzealous to-do list by learning how to discern between what empowers me and what makes me feel less-than. If not, my long list of expectations will continue to loom over my head, threatening to perpetually make me feel like I'm always falling short of the mark. It's challenging because the unrealistic bombshells are strategically hidden amongst the benign chores.

Do the laundry. 
Make dinner. 
Answer emails. 
Look like a supermodel. 
Take out the trash.
Lower your cholesterol.
Hand-paint Easter eggs.
Be better at everything in general.

I know I'm not alone. Elizabeth Gilbert, in an article she wrote for, suggests the following: "As we head into this next decade, can we draft a joint resolution to drop the crazy-making expectation that we must all be perfect friends and perfect mothers and perfect workers and perfect lovers with perfect bodies who dedicate ourselves to charity and grow our own organic vegetables, at the same time that we run corporations and stand on our heads while playing the guitar with our feet?"

Time with my family reminds me of what's important.

And so it seems a perfectly performed to-do list is not a report card for the Soul. I'm learning that imperfection and inadequacy are not synonymous. As a reminder, I've been repeating this mantra from Brené's book: "Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough."

This work is big and heavy. I'm happy to put my Easter post to bed because I need a break from all of this self-study/vulnerability/shame stuff. I want to go do something fun. As my teacher Mark Whitwell says, "Just live your life and have a nice breathe." Maybe I'll go make a scrapbook of my recent vacation. Or maybe I'll make some homemade lavender sachets for my underwear drawer. Oh, there's so much to do!