Macarons: Or, Why I Am Not A Baker

Airy, tender, chewy, ethereally sweet, a good French macaron is one of the few desserts I am always in the mood for. Until a couple of weeks ago, I never contemplated making them on my own. They have a notorious reputation as finicky, fussy, requiring the right level of humidity and arrogance to pull off. I am a throw-everything-in-the-pot, figure-it-out-as-you go cook. I like breads and pie because they’re playful baking. You can squiggle things around. Macarons? They seemed like the holy grail of the science-minded, detail-oriented baking which is my kryptonite.

What a macaron ought to look like. My role for this batch was strictly junior-assistant level, which no doubt is why it came out so well.

But then my friend decided we should make macarons to bring to a dinner and it went just about perfectly and I was inspired. Sure, she’s a pastry chef, but whatever. I had helped make a great batch–or at least, watched closely as she did. I could do this. The recipe she used was reassuringly un-fussy and backed by absolute truck-tons of Q&A, and developed by Stella Parks, a pastry chef who’s now a senior editor at my beloved Serious Eats. I’d seen it in action. It was a trustworthy recipe. I set aside an entire day and got to work.

Here is the thing about macarons. They sound pretty easy to make.

Step 1: Make a stiff meringue using egg whites, sugar, salt.

Step 2: Aggressively fold in a well-sifted dry mix of almond flour and powdered sugar. The batter should be “molten”: visible peaks should slowly melt back into the rest.

Step 3: Pipe into cute little circles on parchment, and bake at 300 for not quite 20 minutes.

And yet. I made five separate batches over the course of the day. I got three half-sheet pans full of cookies from each batch. Of those 15 trays, three were keepers. THREE. That makes my success rate, what, 20%? That’s not even “F” grade bad. That’s, like, “go to summer school and we won’t speak of this again” bad.

Keepers up front; various types of rejects behind.

You may be thinking, Well, Margaret, at least you learned something! What was so different about those three successful trays? BUT I DON’T KNOW. Of the three successful trays, one was the only success in its batch, and truly came out almost perfect (the other two trays of the same batch? flat as pancakes). The other two successful trays were from my last batch of the day, the one that should have been the most challenging because I added extra ingredients to the meringue. (Gel coloring and flavor extract; at this point, I was like, who cares. If I’m going to fail, it might as well be pretty.)

In order to describe my failure, let me describe success. The meringues should come out of the oven perhaps a warmer color than the white they went in, but not brown. They should peel cleanly off the parchment when done (a handy way to test if they are done). They should rise into cute fat little domes with a separate ridge around the bottom. The ridges are called “feet” and they are highly desirable for some reason. They should be smooth and glossy. When broken open, they should have a consistent lacy internal structure. When eaten, they should at first have a lightly crisp texture, followed by a toothsome chew. After a day or two of aging they should be more universally chewy but still disappearingly light.

Good macarons vs. not-good macarons. Same batch, separately baked trays.

So, failure. Completely flat cookies. Slightly risen cookies, but with no feet. Cookies with okay rise and feet but cracked surfaces. Cookies with uneven or hollow internal structure. Cookies that are crunchy rather than crisp-tender. Brown cookies.

A few of the failures had clear reasons. One batch was for sure overmixed: although I thought I had that molten consistency perfect, it had gone too far. Overmixed batter will not rise. Another batch may have been overmixed as well, but that was subject to a different overriding problem that ruined two whole batches. My oven thermometer, which I was being so careful to use to avoid relying on the perhaps inaccurate oven dial, was–wait for it–inaccurate. By about 30 degrees. The macarons will not rise in a too-cool oven. That was my first incoherent rage-scream of the day (but by no means my last, gentle reader).

I will break down the basic recipe with my lessons learned or questions raised. Mostly the latter.

  • Sift together twice as much confectioner’s sugar as almond flour (8oz and 4oz).
    • When I made this recipe with my pastry chef friend, we used almond flour made from whole almonds. Pushing this through the sieve was something that was “interesting” to do once. Had I had to do this for each of my own five batches, I would have been a puddle of tears by #2. Fortunately, Costco had a big bag of superfine flour made from blanched almonds and that was easy peasy. Get that stuff.
    • I threw in a couple teaspoons of ground cardamom into three of my batches at this stage. You’re not supposed to add liquid flavoring/color to the meringues until you’ve nailed down the recipe, but after a bit of research, it looked like this might be a safe way to play. My hands-down best tray was from one of these batches, so I think it was fine.
  • Beat a very, very stiff meringue from twice as much egg white as granulated sugar, plus a touch of salt (5oz, 2.5oz, half a teaspoon).
  • Beat for 10 minutes total, at increasing speed: 3 min @ medium-low, 3 min @ medium-high, 3 min @ high.

    The meringue should be stiff enough to clump inside the whisk.
  • Add any extracts or color at this stage, but regardless, beat for another minute on high “to show it who’s boss,” as Stella says. The meringue will be clumping inside the whisk at this point.
    • I never had trouble making a good stiff meringue. Fat lot of good it did me. In my research, I have now found that perhaps beating my meringue a tad less might help with the hollowness issue. I was worried that my 325 watt, 5-quart stand mixer would not do as good a job as my friend’s larger model, but that was no problem at all.
    • There are many macaron mystics who claim that the age of the egg and the temperature are critical. Stella dismisses this. I left my eggs on the counter all day as I went. Cold egg whites, from my hopeful morning, seemed to perform just the same in the meringue as room temp ones in the late afternoon, as I was sinking into despair.
    • During round one with my pastry chef BFF, we ran into trouble trying to use liquid egg whites and had to switch to separated whole eggs. The liquid ones may have been over-pasteurized, so watch out for that.
  • Dump the almond flour/sugar mixture in all at once. Fold into the meringue. You’re trying to deflate the meringue, not preserve it, so fold the heck out of it.
    • 40 strokes is what Stella recommends. Apparently I am aggressive? Or something? Because my 40 strokes were definitely too many. I found it took more like 25ish for me to get to the right place: when dropped onto itself, the batter would hold its shape briefly. It would ooze back to near-formlessness after about thirty seconds.
      Considerably decreased in volume, glossiness, and general appeal, this is about ten strokes into deflating the meringue once the flour is added–so-called macaronage.

      Macaronage complete! The batter is glossy again, and about the consistency of a thick pancake batter.
    • I really don’t know how you adjust for this. Slightly under-mixing the batter led to predictable results for the first trays of the batch I piped (cookies that retained their little peaks–let’s be honest, they look like nipples–even after resting and baking). However, it resulted in PERFECT texture for the last tray of the batches in question: smooth, glossy, risen domes with nary a nipple in sight.
      Expert friends are so super handy.
      • As the batter rests, and as it gets scooped into a pastry bag and piped out, it continues to develop. That’s why the last slightly under-mixed stuff to be piped worked so well. How can you possibly pipe all of the batch at the same time? I could let the whole batch rest longer, okay. Then the first piping bag full might be good. But the last two or three definitely would then be over-mixed. (See above, viz. rage-screaming.) This was also an issue that my pastry chef friend ran into, and it matters the least of all the failures–so it’s definitely the lowest rung on my ladder of concerns–but still. STILL.
  • Pipe onto parchment-lined baking sheets.
    • Just breaking this out to share my friend’s method for this, which I really like. As opposed to trying to pipe in a circle, which is tough, simply pipe straight down for a consistent length of time. The batter will spread to make circles. Like, count 1-2-3 as the batter comes out. If you use consistent pressure and time you will get perfectly matched cookies. Piping fifteen trays of meringue cookies did really improve my piping skills, I will say.

      Piped circles of meringue. This batch was a bit overmixed–you can tell that the batter spread too easily. The flecks in this batch are from the ground cardamom.
  • Bake at 300F for 18 minutes, or until the cookies peel easily away from the parchment.
    • Honestly, between my villainous thermometer and my verging-on-antique oven, I’m not sure I can say that I ever baked at exactly 300. I did find that erring on the side of too hot was preferable to too cool.
    • Colored macarons are apparently harder to get the timing right for. They can take up to twice as long to bake. It is true that the first tray of my only colored batch never passed the “done” test–but it’s also true that leaving them in for an extra ten minutes resulted in waaaay overdone cookies (although I was using professional color that should be heat-proof, these also went from rosy pink to yucky brown). It was the only tray I actually threw out. The subsequent two trays also did not peel up cleanly when warm, but I took them out at 18 minutes anyway; when cool, they did peel up just fine. They were even a bit over-done, but with my oven temp being so effing mysterious, I can’t really blame the recipe for that.
      With a few drops of liqui-gel food coloring (red) and some raspberry extract.
      • For reference, I used 3 drops of gel fool coloring and two teaspoons of raspberry extract in this batch, within the parameters Stella gives for her flavored versions.
    • Fill and enjoy! Buttercream, fruit curds, jams, alone or in combination with each other–the options are truly endless. They are best once they have been filled and rested in the fridge for a couple days, giving the meringue a chance to absorb some moisture from the filling and achieve that luscious texture.
      • I chose two different combos for the few of mine that qualified for filling: (1) Cardamom meringue with orange flower and almond buttercream; and (2) raspberry meringue with raspberry buttercream and lemon curd. For the batch I made with my friend, we chose hazelnut buttercream with a Nutella center sandwiched in plain meringue.

The diversity of macarons is actually what appeals to me so much about them. The process may be exacting, but the flavors can be so playful. That’s why I will–at some point–make these again.

But not, like, for a while.

Two Beauties

Every book I have ever read has left an imprint on me. Sometimes it’s so slight as to be forgotten; sometimes, as with Robin McKinley’s Beauty, the mark is indelible. This telling of Beauty and the Beast represents the best of fantasy writing to me: a genuine sense of magic grounded with dimensional, fully realized characters, and writing that may be lyrical but never overwrought.

I did not realize until a couple weeks ago that McKinley–who wrote Beauty at the tender age of 18–returned to her favorite fairy tale as an adult to write Rose Daughter. Since on paper I ought to have loved it, it’s taken me some time to work out why I in fact disliked it so much.

What I did like: Lush descriptions, a carefully built world of real people with real jobs and problems and grime under their nails, the brooding mystery at the heart of the Beast’s story.

What I did not like, not one bit: The lack of magic. There’s plenty of magical accessories to the action of the story. Take your pick of sorcerers and greenwitches, invisible servants, unicorns. But there is no magic.

I took a playwriting class in college. I was terrible at it. I mean, that semester holds some memories so cringe-worthy that I can barely stand to touch on them 15 years later. The only thing my professor liked from me the whole semester was my final. I wrote 60 pages of a play in one night: I realized, at 11pm the night before it was due, that the piece I’d been laboring over for weeks was as dull and lifeless and hateful as everything else I’d done in that class. So I scrapped it utterly and started over with 8 hours left on the clock.

And overnight I wrote something magical–that is, a transformation took place on stage. It may not have been a play that anyone should ever produce (I never even wanted to finish it), but I had arrived at something. I stopped thinking about how an actor could change costumes that fast, or how something that size could get on stage, or how that effect would be visible to the back row; I just wrote the magic and it worked.

Robin McKinley’s Beauty is the true magic that I got a glimpse of that one frenzied night. Rose Daughter never gets there because it is crushingly concerned, like I was that whole awful semester, with how and why the magic could happen. It’s the difference between a rose blooming for a month and a day because it is enchanted, or because it happens to be from really great stock and its fertilizer was at just the right pH.

But Rose Daughter worked its own kind of enchantment on me–or broke one I hadn’t known was there. Over the past year I have written very little. I think about my novel and feel tired of it, defeated by it. Reading this lovely yet empty story by this wonderful author made me realize where I’ve gone wrong with my book. I’ve been looking behind the curtain, telling the stage manager what to do, worrying about how the sound will carry. As that so-frustrated professor kept trying to tell me years ago, I ought to be looking at what’s on the stage. That’s where the magic happens.

blooming orange rose

Marching against a mirage

This past Saturday, I was one of ~150,000 people who swarmed the Boston Common–the largest demonstration in Boston in decades. We represented only a tiny fraction of the millions of women and men who took to the streets worldwide, responding to the threat posed by the newly-minted 45th President of the United States.

Women's March protest sign in BostonDetermining the extent of that threat is still in progress. Fighting it will be the work of many coming years. We know that his administration poses a serious threat to the health, safety, and agency of women (the gestalt of these protests); to the very life of people of color; to the health of most Americans, but especially the poor ones; to the longevity of human habitat on Earth; to the pursuit of science; to a free press; to truth; and to the American experiment itself.

The most frequently-heard chant at Boston’s rally was to that latter point. Call (from a few throats): “Tell me what democracy looks like!” Response (from many throats, deafening): “This is what democracy looks like!” And it is–or at least, one of its most attractive faces. The vibe in Boston was downright joyful. There was drumming, dancing, laughter everywhere, waves of applause. There was a sense that we were there to be uplifted and damn it, we would be uplifted.

But this was just one day. And democracy for a day, as was made abundantly clear on November 8, 2016, is not enough democracy to make this thing work. Our participation in politics must become consistent, passionate, and supremely well-organized for the resistance to stand a chance against the empire.

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I don’t have the slightest idea how to do this. I’ve been an armchair American for a long time. Fortunately, some thoughtful organizers out there have made it easy for those of us with occasional-democracy syndrome to take some baby steps out into the world of action.

10 Actions / 100 Days: The babiest of baby steps! The first one is sending a postcard with a nice note on it. (I can do this!)

The Big Hundred: Just a few days in, these actions to counter Trumpism seem geared to approachable, be kind to others-type things. Don’t be a jerk! (I can probably do this.)

Call Them In: I don’t even call people I love on the phone. Why would I call people I don’t even know? To save the world? Yes, okay, good reason. But I can’t just…like…do it. So these lovely folks have made it incredibly easy. I don’t even have to pick my own words. So easy. So democratic. (I will work up to this.)

Swing Left: This might be my favorite. Results-oriented planning FTW! These folks want us to take back the House in 2018. Without it, we just can’t have nice things–such as checks and balances! Or an impeachment! Find out where your nearest swing district is and get to work. I get overwhelmed by how much there is to be done; I like that this is not only clear but scope-constrained. (I look forward to doing this.)

And yes, obviously, find some way to support groups like the SPLC and the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Defense Fund, groups that have been fighting this fight for a long time and know what they’re doing.

I’ve seen numerous sources point out that yeah, this whole Trump thing is a disgrace and a catastrophe, but without it, would millions of us have taken to the streets to raise our voices for women, for people of color, for indigenous rights, for gay rights, for immigration justice, for environmental justice, for a better America? Would we have finally realized that a better America means all that other stuff, all at once? (Um. No. In case you were wondering.) Yet these issues have been taking their toll–on real human lives–not just throughout our country’s sordid history, but during the past eight years.

We’ve had a President we could be proud of for the past two terms. He was classy and smart, handsome and charming. He had his heart mostly in the right place most of the time, and plus he had Michelle and Joe Biden backing him up, so, yeah, we swooned. Now we have a President we’re ashamed of–but truly, there was a lot to be ashamed of all along. Our love affair with Barack Obama just made us overlook the flaws.

This is a serious lesson in silver linings. We’re being forced to decide what we want this country to be. We can choose to make this a country to be proud of, which will take an unthinkable amount of hard work and coming together and action and love, or we can choose to wake up from the American dream once and for all.

If the moral universe does indeed have an arc, then justice is the horizon. This weekend’s march made me view what’s happening right now across the world–the regression towards xenophobia and insularity, the desperate last gasp of the reign of the white man–as merely a fata morgana. That’s when our eyes get tricked into perceiving something on the horizon as bigger than it actually is, and unreachable: ships that seem to float above the ocean, or cities in the clouds. But America is not a city in the clouds. We can reach its heart, and lay siege to it, and take it back.

Easy holiday rack of lamb

Looking for something fancy to serve over the holidays? Not looking forward to spending all day on a roast? If you have a smaller party, a frenched rack of lamb looks about as impressive as it gets and is super easy to prepare. (I was also preparing multiple other things at the same time and was a total slacker about photos…sorry.)

For my Viking’s birthday this past week, I wanted to cleanse both our palates of a truly awful lamb experience at one of Boston’s nicest restaurants. This worked. Because I don’t cook lamb much, I did a weird thing for me, which was: I found a recipe and followed it exactly. (Okay. Almost exactly.)

I used Rack of Lamb with Garlic and Herbs. Originally a summer recipe from Gourmet, there’s nothing summer-specific about this. The herb coating is indeed a welcome kick of brightness in a dreary month, but the savory, meltingly tender meat is as celebratory as it gets.

Also, lamb is in season in the other hemisphere, so it’s even (sort of?) seasonal. I always prefer Australian or New Zealand lamb when I can get it: free range and grass-fed by default, it is generally more mild-flavored than American lamb (so if you don’t like “gamey” lamb this is a good bet for you), plus humanely raised.

  1. Preheat your oven (recipe says 350; I, and many of the recipe’s reviewers, used 400 instead).
  2. While it’s heating, make the herb paste.
    1. I did a double handful of curly parsley (flat tastes weird to me), four fat garlic cloves, four or five stems of fresh rosemary, about a teaspoon dried thyme, a pinch of salt, and loads of fresh pepper. I bet this would also be delightful with some fresh mint thrown in.
    2. With a good dollop of olive oil, this came together in no time in the work bowl of my food processor, but it’s not a lot to mince by hand–just be careful to get it as paste-y as possible for best cohesion to the lamb later on.
    3. Please not that my paste quantities are almost exactly the same as the recipe’s–but the recipe is supposed to coat two racks, and I only had one. To this I say, HA! More paste!
  3. Trim fat from lamb if necessary–mine was nicely butchered and there was no need–and rinse, then pat well dry.
  4. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper.
  5. Preheat a heavy skillet for a couple of minutes, dry, til very hot, THEN add a bit of high-heat oil to the pan. I used a 10 inch cast iron with avocado oil.
  6. Brown the lamb well, everywhere but the short exposed ends (which you don’t want to overcook). I did about 2 minutes per side. Non-cast iron may take longer.
  7. Now the fun part. Take the paste and rub it liberally all over the meaty parts of the rack. Pressing firmly should get it to adhere pretty well. You want it to really coat the meat.
  8. The recipe says to put the rack(s) in a small roasting pan to finish cooking, but I say, if I already have a dirty pan AND it’s oven-safe, why would I bother? So I gave my skillet a quick swipe with a paper towel to remove excess fat, put the lamb right back in, and stuck it in the oven.
  9. Cook until the lamb registers about 120; as it rests, it should come up to medium-rare.
    1. This may 15-25 minutes depending on your oven (and on your lamb, I suppose).
    2. I tested at 15 and it was 102; I tested 7 minutes later and it was 129 (!!!!!) but it turned out PERFECTLY medium-rare, as you can see. I did tent with foil at the 15-minute mark, as the recipe suggests, and that may actually have been the problem. The lamb wasn’t scorching–next time I would leave uncovered.
    3. Pro tip: I got annoyed that the recipe made no mention of how to position the rack for optimal cooking. I decided it would be weird if one of the meaty sides were laying flat while the other were exposed to the air. That seemed like it would cook unevenly, plus perhaps burn that nice herb paste. So I rolled up a bit of tinfoil and used it as a prop to keep the rack from falling over as it “stood” upright.
  10. Let rest for a few minutes–ideally tented with foil, but because mine came out at too high a temp, I immediately removed it to a plate and left uncovered to help it cool quicker. Then carve into two-chop segments and enjoy.

I served ours with a wild mushroom farro risotto and a simple side of greens (arugula and sorrel, dressed lightly with toasted walnut oil and lemon). It left me thinking I ought to make more excuses to serve rack of lamb: fast, drop-dead gorgeous, and utterly delicious.

herb crusted rack of lamb

And now, pie

I have yet to emerge from my post-election hideout from the real world, but I think the worst of the comfort food phase is over. Or should I say best? There were a lot of indulgences in there, among them: pie. Lots and lots of pie.

Yet I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. (My tooth is very, very salty.) One of the reasons pie has always appealed to me is that you can moderate the sweetness and offset it–a fresh fruit filling, a buttery crust that verges on savory, a hint of almond in the cherries or whisky in the apples. But I also really love coconut cream pie so go figure.

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The two rules of pie crust: mess with it as little as possible, and keep it as cold as possible. I happen to like mine made with all butter and no sugar, like this one from the NYT, but there are plenty out there that use shortening or sugar or egg (for a tart crust) and really, those are just lovely too. Make it all by hand or do 90% of it in a food processor. Roll it out between sheets of parchment, plastic wrap, or silpats for a process that’s nearly as mess-free as buying one from a store. The flavor and texture rewards are so worth it.


My favorite from this most recent craze was a batch of sour cherry hand pies. The cherries were from my aunt’s tree–from last year, in which it had produced a prodigal crop of the pale ruby gems–and had been frozen after processing. I thawed a quart of them, drained them, cooked them down with barely a cup of sugar and a cornstarch slurry made with lemon juice, and then let them cool. I stirred in a little almond extract just because.

Baked in individually-sized portions for the maximum crust-to-content ratio, they came out like every cherry pie I’ve ever wanted. Tart then sweet, ending with a fat roundness from that buttery, buttery crust, their only flaw was insufficient quantity. Okay, and some of them were falling apart because I am terrible at shaping hand pies (all the good ones were made by a lovely friend/kitchen goddess helping me). But still. Perfect.


Fight or Flight: Or, A Dilemma of American Privilege

Donald Trump is the President-Elect of the United States.

There. I said it.

I couldn’t say it yesterday. I needed the day after the election to begin to wrap my head around what had just happened. The 2016 presidential campaign felt like a satire–often, a farce–from the very beginning, and it’s been tough to recognize that this is now my reality. We all know the facts: endorsed by the KKK, with a platform that articulates bigotry and misogyny, beyond anti-intellectual and into anti-conscious thought, this creature of America’s basest instincts was legitimately elected into power by more than 59 million of my fellow citizens.

The disastrous results of this election put the alt-right in the Executive branch of our government, to be checked by the hard right in the Legislative and the soon-t0-be-determined level of fucking crazy in the Judicial. Even if Trump manages to last four years without doing something incredibly illegal and getting impeached, or just quitting when he finds out it’s actually a really hard job, this particular conformation of government is going to screw the vast majority of people in this country for a long time to come. I expect we’ll get a flipped Senate, at least, in two years, but that’s cold comfort.

Before the election, my husband and I discussed what we do in the event of a Trump presidency. Of course these conversations had a flippant tone–such a thing wasn’t going to happen, after all–but we decided we couldn’t live in such a dystopian version of our country. We’d go to New Zealand: gorgeous, no language barrier, as far away as possible from nuclear strike zones. We recognize our socioeconomic privilege in having the choice at all. We haven’t had the heart to bring the topic up seriously now that the dystopia is here, but the talk is coming. My first instinct is certainly to flee this place. Why would I want to live in a country that chose white supremacy? Why stay in a place that is growing farther and farther away from my own ideals?

But Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 200,000. Other than rubbing salt in the wound, that means that nearly 60 million of my fellow citizens are on the right side of history, on the side of civil rights and of basic human decency. If I left, I’d also be leaving them. I’m not sure what the Venn Diagram looks like of those voters and the most vulnerable to Trumper policies, but I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap there.

That’s where privilege comes up again: I’m not at great risk to Trump’s would-be policies, though as a woman some absolutely affect me in deeply personal ways, and I’m sure that I could use my position of relative safety to fight for the most vulnerable. I could use my privilege as a white person, as someone with financial security, as someone in a (relatively) safe state, to advantage by staying and fighting for the America that should be.

Staying and fighting also requires an acknowledgement that I have let my country down so far. Of all the emotions I’ve been facing over the last couple of days, one keeps rising to the top like an oil slick on water: guilt.

Democracy doesn’t magically come into being every four years and then go away. A government by and for the people demands the people’s involvement for real success. I have voted in every election since I turned 18, but that is not enough.

I am not an activist. I am not a politician. I throw a bit of money at likely candidates every few years, I sign petitions, I write to my Senators and Representatives if something big comes up. I understand that this is more involved that many Americans, but what a disgustingly low bar. How easy to step over it into real engagement with our political process.

At least, it should be. I don’t know there to go from here. What constitutes a step towards being a truly good citizen? Volunteering with some local org? Running for local office? Finding a job with the Elizabeth Warren office, hallowed be her name? What does fighting look like?

The loudest demographic of this election was a plurality of voters across America hungry for change–even change at the expense of human decency and the ideals of the American experiment, apparently. The establishment parties have seen that hunger and they’re scared. That’s why Republicans stuck by Trump, through all the unfathomably awful things he’s said and done; they were afraid to let go of this “change agent” and be left by the wayside. But they’re going to get back to business as usual to the extent their constituency lets them.

By the same token, the Democrats yielded to progressive pressure early on, incorporating much of the “Bernie revolution” message into the party platform. Will the party keep fighting for those ideals? It seems they have to–we must swing wildly left to counter the fast-sinking right. Change is hard, though, and it is our duty to make sure the DNC knows we’re watching. Or better yet, participating. Perhaps that’s continuing to put pressure on the party to change. Perhaps that’s committing to nationwide election reform so that we can make third parties viable parts of our process instead of wisps of St. Elmo’s fire that lead otherwise good people off into the wastelands when they’re needed most.

Flight sounds easy but of course it isn’t. I don’t want to leave behind those I love. Fight sounds hard, but maybe it’s not as hard as I think. The wounds of this election–the hatred and the bigotry, seeing progress shoved so forcibly back–will turn into scars no matter where I live the next four years. Over the coming days what I need to figure out is: do I still believe in America? Can this go from being my country by an accident of birth to a country I help build? The one thing I know is that I cannot stay here and remain a bystander.

I want to hear how you see us saving the dream of America. Or, toss out some good business ideas for New Zealand and let’s look at real estate. I’m open.

This is New Zealand. I mean, can you blame me?
This is New Zealand. I mean, can you blame me?

Make Halloween Weird Again

What is Halloween, anyway? It’s long been one of my favorite holidays, and it exercises a stronger hold on the American cultural imagination than any other. Yet it bears little resemblance to what it once was. It’s been sexed up and tamed down until it feels almost entirely divorced from its roots. A Frankenstein’s monster, if you will, that instead of barging off into the wilderness has gone for a well-lit stroll down cultivated garden lanes.

Deer skull on Icelandic house
Iceland, where they keep it weird.

Dia de los Muertos celebrations are closer in many ways to the original European All Hallows Eve than our current trick or treating. Halloween is rooted in Samhain (“sah-win”, meaning “summer’s end”), which marked the end of the pagan year. The Celts of the British Isles believed it was the day spirits were closest to our world–just as the people of Mexico have long believed that this is when spirits not only come close to our world, but come back specifically to be reunited with their loved ones. There remains a pervasive sense of otherworldliness about Day of the Dead celebrations, whereas Halloween has become all too worldly.

Dia de los Muertos decoration
flickr/Bart Heird

It didn’t start that way. Catholics, back in the 800s A.D., tried to turn the pagan Samhain into All Saints Day and held a vigil the night before. Called All Hallows Eve, this is what became our Halloween. It got a bit smushed up with another Christian holiday (All Souls Day) as well as old Roman days of the dead, and the roots of the modern holiday–costumes, trick or treating, bobbing for apples–grew out of a variety of traditions that immigrants brought to the New World.

Halloween proceeded to spend much of the 20th century evolving into a secular holiday, and the 21st devolving into commercial-dom. And yet there’s still some kernel of the original intent: using treats to placate mischievous children is not far off from using them to placate spirits, and Halloween still serves as a marker between the season of plenty and the season of wither. Half-bare branches and the scuttle of dry leaves in the gutter are as much a part of the holiday as jack o’lanterns and candy bars.

Gorilla, bat, and farmer Halloween costumesCostumes today may not be intended to confuse demons, but the trend towards satire does convey a sense of cultural exorcism. And then we have aspirational costumes–superheroes, royalty, pop stars–which seem uniquely and almost touchingly American. They suggest a world where everyone is encouraged to dream big and rewarded when they do.

Our Halloween may not be spooky. It’s no solemn reminder, as it once was, of the thin veil that separates us from eternity. It is a glittering daylight heartthrob vampire, not the monster you run from in darkness. Still, it’s a time to celebrate strangeness, to get a peek at what scares or amuses those around you, and to look at lots of extremely adorable small children.

I would like to see a return to honoring this liminal time. This Halloween, take a moment to think about our year sliding towards darkness. Watch a scary movie and feel how close you are to panic at any moment. Wear a mask to the grocery store to understand the mask you wear every day. Wear a “vote for Trump” button. Make Halloween weird* again.

*Suggesting something supernatural; unearthly.

‘Sounds emitted from the bushes: weird uncanny sounds made by unknown animals, for all sorts of things lived in forests.’

Synonyms: uncanny, eerie, unnatural, supernatural, unearthly, otherworldly, ghostly, mysterious, strange, abnormal, unusual

Vintage Halloween costumes
Halloween costumes: they don’t make ’em like they used to.


Oktoberfest may be loads of fun in Munich, but in the States it’s usually a bust. Giant crowds of drunk people, expensive beer, sad lederhosen. So when close friends began hosting their own, I thought I couldn’t be more thrilled. But then they made pretzels. REAL pretzels.

Oktoberfest pretzel textureIf ever you have loved a street pretzel, I am sure it’s because of the peculiar snap when you bite into it. The contrast of savory crust against chewy, yeasty dough is pretty good too. If ever you have been disappointed by a street pretzel–all of us?–it’s because the skin is dull or soft, and the interior a bready flavorless mass.

So what’s the secret? Other than requiring a good basic yeasted dough recipe, what sets apart a real pretzel from the impostors is a dip in a food-grade lye solution. Home cooks don’t usually mess with lye, which is highly caustic and needs to be handled carefully, but it’s the critical component in both pretzels and bagels.

The high-alkaline lye breaks down proteins in the surface of the dough. These freed-up amino acids interact with sugars when exposed to heat, creating complex flavor compounds along with darkening color. This process happens on some level with all cooked food–it’s called the Maillard reaction and is responsible for much deliciousness, like the crust of creme brulee–but the lye amplifies it. Often, home cooks try substituting baking soda to skip messing with lye; this works, but doesn’t get you quite the richness, complexity, or deep brown color possible with lye. Baking soda’s pH is 7. Pure lye’s is double that at 14.

Red Devil Lye for pretzelsFortunately, our host and my intrepid spouse are best friends and perfectly willing to support each other through the drama that is the lye dip. While they are, to date, the only ones who dip their gloved hands into the chemical that constitutes drain cleaner, the rest of us do what we can: mixing dough, shaping loaves, setting timers, rolling and shaping the pretzels. And then more friends arrive and somehow, dozens and dozens of pretzels just disappear. It’s an Oktoberfest miracle.

The dough is simply yeast, flour, water, salt, and a sugar; malt syrup is traditional, we used molasses as it’s easier to find. You mix it well, and like a bread dough knead it until it’s stretchy and smooth (signs the proteins are starting to break down and re-form into nice long chains that will hold their shape as the dough rises). Then it rests. Afterwards, punching down and a few gentle kneads, then portioning it, rolling long ropes of dough, and forming pretzels. After they adjust to their new form, they get dipped in the lye bath and immediately baked in a hot oven.

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Our pretzels for Oktoberfest 2016 were made according to a NYT recipe that we hadn’t used in past years. Calling for quite a lot of instant yeast per batch (2 T per 6 c flour!), they were much more active than our previous doughs. In order to stagger our time and be able to actually party and stuff, we made the dough the night before and let it rest overnight. With some doughs this would have been fine. With this one, even their 40-F degree resting environment was not cool enough to retard their growth sufficiently. So these were a mite less “pretzely” looking than previous years on account of their puffiness, but the taste was fabulous. All that yeast (and rising time) gave them really deep flavor.

This year, we made 84 pretzels for ~30 guests. We had 5 leftover because clearly a couple of people weren’t pulling their weight. I think I had 8 but it might have been 9 because once we started toasting them by the firepit while drinking whiskey I sort of stopped counting.

Photo from Oktoberfest 2015, I was too stuffed with pretzels for fire-pretzel photos this year.
Photo from Oktoberfest 2015, I was too stuffed with pretzels for fire-pretzel photos this year.


Apples: A Seasonal Love Affair

I wonder if I would love apples as much if I had grown up somewhere other than New England. For instance, if my family had remained in eastern Kentucky where I was born—more tomato than apple country. But I grew up just outside of Boston and they were a staple of my diet. I used to eat literally everything but the seeds, core and all—at least for those fleeting early fall months when the apple exhibits its most, best, intense, appleness.

Our food system allows us to access most foods at most times of the year: strawberries in February, oranges in May, spring lamb all year round. All natural foods are best when freshest, and out of season produce can be truly dismal by the time it travels from its native clime to your table. But no other food makes the importance of seasonality so brazenly clear to me as apples.

29566098944_1fc0a6289d_oI’ve rarely met the tree-ripe, just-picked apple I didn’t love. The satisfying bite, the rush of juice, the almost cleansing acidity. If you live in an apple mecca—Boston counts—then during the season you can choose from dozens of varietals to exactly match your preference. I prefer apples with a very crisp bite, firm fine-grained flesh, and a flavor profile that’s at least as tart as it is sweet. Northern Spy, Macoun, Jonamac, Empire, Cortland are reliable picks.

This year I found a new heirloom apple favorite, the fantastically named Ashmead’s Kernal. Similar in appearance to the oldest cultivated apple, the tamer Roxbury Russet, it has a mottled matte green skin (almost like an Asian pear), bright white dense flesh with a fabulous snap, and an intoxicatingly lively palate. It can be intensely tart. If I ever have a batch long enough that their bite softens, making them less ideal for eating out of hand, I would try them in a tarte tatin where that tartness could play against a sweet rich buttery pastry.

heirloom apple tastingAt dinner the other night, friends prepared an heirloom apple tasting as our first course. It was a brilliant idea. I laughed at the coincidence when I saw the plate—we shop at the same farmer’s market and they had picked out exactly the same varietals as I had done, from a wide array of choices, that morning.

They served the apples with a Pecorino-like local cheese, nuts and seeds they had roasted with a spiced glaze, and homemade rye crackers. The accompaniments provided a nice range of contrasts—earthy, spicy, crunchy, unctuous, sweet—against which we could judge the apples’ qualities. Ashmead’s Kernal turned out to be the overall favorite.

Esopus Spitzenberg—really—had an almost airy bite and citrus-scented, light flesh. A reputed favorite of Thomas Jefferson, it tied for second with the incongruously named Blue Pearmain, which I can only describe as a fairy tale apple: cherry-red skin, snow-white flesh. It was not my favorite because its bite was more firm than crisp and its acidity was not quite pronounced enough to offset its distinctly floral sweetness. We all agreed it would make a killer cider or applesauce; its scent was positively heady. In last place was the aforementioned Roxbury Russet. Though this cultivar plays an important role in American apple history and is local to Boston to boot, its overall flavor profile was muted in comparison to the others and its bite, as well as its skin, more closely resembled an Asian pear than its peers.

20151010-dsc_0577It’s about 10 in the morning right now and I’ve already had my first apple of the day (I think it was a Black Gilliflower, crisp sweet firm). An Ashmead’s Kernal is next, and then tomorrow morning, back to the farmer’s market for another round of treasure hunting.

Talking to Horses

About a year ago I started taking horseback riding lessons. Yet it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I could clarify what I really want out of my time with my horses: how to talk to them.

margskip8_29167657915_oThe moment of clarity came during a trick clinic. That is, an all-day affair where each participant worked with her horse on fundamental training principles with fun payouts–the tricks. Getting the horse to “smile,” or step up on a small block, or hug you. I was having the time of my life and we didn’t spend a single moment on horseback. It was the engagement with the horse, his interest in what was happening, the painstaking process of figuring out how to elicit the correct behavior that I loved. The conversation.

When I returned to horses as an adult, remembering only my confidence with them when I was younger, I was shocked to find how much I had changed. Sense of my own mortality, etc. I thought confidence would return as I spent more time with them both on the ground and in the saddle. Some has, for sure. But I realized at that trick clinic that I needed a tool set. Techniques for dogs don’t necessarily translate to horses; body language has different meaning; predator and prey cannot be equated.

Quarterhorse standing with two front feet on a block
Skippy is a bit clumsy and it took him ages to figure out this particular “simple” trick, but we got there eventually!

I feel like I heard a new language for the first time at that clinic and have been trying to practice ever since. My teacher always says that she doesn’t whisper to horses, she listens to them, and while I have intellectually understood the difference I feel like I’m just starting to understand what that actually means now. And although I’ve got a long way to go, it’s astonishing how much more confident I have felt simply having that insight and a new tool set.

Last week, I had the opportunity to take another “language lesson” with the same trainer. This clinic was divided into trick training for the first half and versatility for the second–that is, intentionally pushing your horse’s limits in order to build up their confidence and deepen the trust which is the focus of all training.

Skippy on a seesaw
The seesaw! Please ignore my posture, which is awful. Also he tried to eat the giant inflatable monster in the corner.

I got off easy for the second part. My partner for the event–as for the first one–was a hunky AQHA named Skippy who could be the dictionary definition of “bombproof.” At one point, I was riding him while holding a veil over his head, asking him to walk over a mattress and through a fence of pool noodles (at one point, while two hula hoops hung around his neck), and he acted like we were taking a Sunday stroll through the park. We had to work through a few tough moments, like walking onto and over a horse-sized seesaw or finding a giant plush iguana on the ground where there hadn’t been one a moment before, but on the whole our conversation was more like easy bantering than a debate.

If only you could see his “yeah, whatever” face. Image c/o Kasandra Olson.

My second trick training clinic left me grinning like an idiot and reinforced how right this system felt to me. Of course, not all horses are the same, and just as with humans, you can’t have the same conversation with two of them. I was riding one of the most reliable horses at the barn the other day, an expert lesson horse who could do what I’m asking her with her eyes closed. But she spooked.

All of a sudden I couldn’t even remember how to have any conversation, let alone what language it ought to be in. So I panicked and dumped myself off onto the sand. She looked at me, I looked at her, we both felt a bit ashamed of ourselves. A few moments later the source of the spook ran by, and let me tell you, it was the most terrifying chipmunk I have ever seen. So yeah. The confidence recipe includes a hefty proportion of practice and I’m far from that magical threshold.

This spring, I wrote about being an adult beginner. I was out for 6 weeks as a result of the fall that prompted that post; then I traveled for a month during the summer; and lately, I haven’t been riding much as we’ve been busy moving the barn to new facilities. Honestly, I don’t feel a lot closer to answering the questions I posed to myself back in May. However, through my first few falls and scary moments, through a sticky hot summer and a hell of a lot of hard work, I can now say (with a certain amount of pride) that I have been sticking to it. Talking to horses will take a long time to do well and I don’t know if I’ll ever be fluent. Fortunately, though–time I’ve got.