What I Did for Cookies

img_0121I’m working on a production A Chorus Line, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about dancers at an audition. Of course, there’s more to it than that; it’s really about what motivates performing artists in the face of the terrible odds against “success,” at least if “success” is defined as “getting hired.” The last scene of the show before the finale–when we learn which of the dancers is hired for the fictional musical–is a section called “Alternatives,” in which they answer the question, “What do you do when you can’t dance any more.” And finally, when the question is rephrased, “But what if today were the day you had to stop dancing. How would you feel?” the answer comes in the musical’s most well-known song, “What I Did for Love.”

Kiss today goodbye,
The sweetness and the sorrow…
*

I’m no dancer, and not much of a singer, but I’ve admired A Chorus Line as long as I’ve known about it. I bought the original cast album as soon as it was released and practically wore out the grooves of the record. I bought the score as soon as it was available and played it ’til my fingers were raw. It was one of the shows I saw on my first trip to NYC.

Imagine how disappointed I was when, many years ago, I finally got a chance to music-direct a production and it was a terrible experience. I won’t dwell on why that experience was so sour, just to say that I needed more than a little convincing to take it on again.

You know the expression, “So far, so good”? Well, how about, “so far, so great”? The cast and staff adore each other. We’re a week and a half in, and it’s already a beautiful experience. Everyone is working tremendously hard to make this production the best it can be, and to enjoy the process. And it’s really working well.

Hey, wait–I’m supposed to be writing about food!

Last Thursday was my first full-evening vocal rehearsal. Those forces of nature in my cast had to Sit Still and Sing for three and a half hours while we worked our way through most of the ensemble music in the show. I wanted to do something nice for them and bring cookies, but ran out of baking time then. I made sure to leave time before yesterday’s rehearsal.

Cookies? you say. You brought cookies to people who have to wear leotards and tights in public? I’ve seen these folks work in rehearsal. It’s an incredibly aerobic show. They can stand to eat a cookie now and then.

There’s a bakery in the neighborhood near where the old City House was. Their chocolate chip walnut cookies are astonishingly good. They’re also pretty pricey. And it’s quite a trip from the Country House. But without too much trouble I found a recipe that’s produces cookies very, very close to the magical bakery’s product. Screwing my courage to the sticking place (after the Snickerdoodle Debacle), I pulled out the mixer, pre-heated the oven, and got to work.

“Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball,” sings a particularly energetic dancer in a song about adolescence. I thought of him as I worked on my cookies, with the direction “Roll the dough into large balls.” I think, at risk of heresy, that it is possible for a cookie to be too big. Maybe even for dancers. I made these much smaller–a little smaller than golf balls when they went into the oven. They came out perfectly. I packed them for the cast (leaving a supply for my fearless commuter to find upon her return from work), and headed off to rehearsal.

When the stage manager called a break, I set them out.

“There are cookies on the table!” someone noted with glee.

“Why are there cookies?” someone asked.

“Why are there not always cookies?” someone responded, with her mouth full.

“Who brought the cookies?”

Someone pointed to me. I got a round of applause. I took a little bow and blew a kiss to my well-loved cast.

The box was empty about two minutes later. Break ended, and we went back to work on a complicated scene.

There will be hard times to come. This play is hard work. There will be challenges. Frustration. Disaster. But, together, we will work through it all, and care for each other. Sometimes with kind words, sometimes with a quick shoulder-rub or a hug, sometimes with cookies. In the best sense, this is community theatre–not because the actors aren’t getting paid, but because we are a community.

I try not to think too much about what I’ll do on the day I can’t make music any more.

Maybe I’ll bake.

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*This performance of “What I Did for Love” was sung by the cast of this year’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton. It’s as pure and honest a performance of the song as I’ve ever heard.

Don’t Fritter, Don’t Waffle, and Definitely Don’t Disappoint

Painted in Waterlogue

I used to joke that if I wanted to change careers, I could become an interior decorator for extremely patient clients. I could look at every towel rack in a three-county area before choosing one. Sometimes I have a problem being decisive.

I love lasagne. But I hardly ever order it in a restaurant, because I’m always disappointed. It never comes out of the kitchen the way I think it ought to. I’m looking for thick, sturdy layers of noodles and fillings and cheese—the important word being sturdy. I expect it to have the structural integrity of a slice of cake, not a messy plate of pasta.

Similarly, I love apple fritters. Or, at least, I love the idea of apple fritters. Chopped apples, held together by a little dough, fried and lightly glazed. On those rare occasions I go to the donut shop, I choose one, thinking, this will be great! And better than just a donut. What do I get? A pile of glaze-covered dough, in which you’d need a geiger counter to find the apples. Or, if I’m lucky, a gloppy spoonful of canned apple pie filling.

I have no problem with a nice glazed donut. I like apple pie (though I’d prefer the filling not come from a can). But that’s not what I’m looking for.

This, however, is.

Apple Decisive
(no waffling, no frittering)

Pre-heat a waffle iron and coat lightly with non-stick spray.
Set a cooling rack over a section of the newspaper you weren’t going to read anyway.

Combine in a large bowl:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine in a small bowl:
1 cup milk

1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

Make a well in the dry ingredients and stir in the wet, mixing just enough to combine, then fold in
3 cups chopped apples
(That seems like a lot, but apple is the star; pastry is the supporting player.)

Spoon the mixture, which will be thick and chunky, into the waffle iron and bake until golden brown and immensely fragrant. Remove each Decisive to the rack.

Mix in a small bowl:
4 tablespoons confectioners sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons apple cider (a few drops more, as needed)

If you want the glaze to set up, beautiful and shiny, wait ’til the Decisives are cool to apply it. We chose not to wait that long.

It is possible that the lasagne I’ve been getting in restaurants is exactly as it is meant to be, and the stuff I make is the casserole of a Philistine. It is possible that a Fritter is supposed to be a fried lump of dough faintly smelling of apple. I don’t care.

It might take a while for me to pick a towel rack, but when it comes to Sunday breakfast, I’m being decisive.

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Don’t Laugh. Don’t Even Snicker(doodle).

“I need to bake cookies on Wednesday night,” she said. “And maybe a cake.”

We’ve been hooked on The Great British Baking Show (or …Bake-Off, as it is known everywhere but in America), and it has improved both the quality and quantity of our baked goods, but need seemed rather strong a word. I asked for clarification. She explained that she was going to interview a bunch of young people on Thursday, and thought bringing some treats might make them a little less nervous about telling their stories.

Cookies. And maybe a cake. On Wednesday night, when she wouldn’t arrive until well after 7. Before catching an early train on Thursday. It just seemed impractical to leave the work for her. Especially when I’ve been working from home lately.

I took a late-morning break and looked around the kitchen. I figured I’d start with the cake. I was not thinking about the fact that she dislikes baking cookies and I should have left the cake for her; really, I was thinking I could get a cake into the oven and while it baked I’d sort out the cookie situation.

We had apples and ginger, so a recipe I found in the New York Times seemed like a good place to start with the cake. I might have misread it, or maybe my apples were larger than the ones the recipe was expecting, because it came out very apple-filled. Nothing wrong with that; it took a little longer to bake than the recipe said, but it looked fine and smelled better.

Time for cookies. I was pretty sure nuts were off-limits, considering the possibility of allergies; and I knew we didn’t have any chocolate chips. And I didn’t have forever. Sugar cookies? No, too dull. Snickerdoodles. Lovely, soft cinnamon-covered beauties. The cinnamon would go nicely with the spices in the apple cake. I followed the recipe precisely.  I checked the oven thermometer twice. I put 8 perfect little dough balls  on a half-sheet pan, put the pan in the oven, and set the timer for 5 minutes–half of the allotted baking time, after which the pan was to be rotated. I opened the oven door and found to my dismay that all the cookies had melted together.

Whoops. 8 must have been too many.

I scraped off the pan, washed and dried it and let it cool, took the dough out of the refrigerator and tried a batch of 6. And they pooled together, too. Maybe 4? and on the insulated cookie sheets? Another glob.

It should be noted that these cookies tasted great. They just had no structural integrity. I saved what I could of them, even tried cutting perfect circles of them with a biscuit cutter, but they just wouldn’t hold shape. I was not going to send misshapen, crumbly cookies to work with her.

I tried again the next morning, with a recipe from her favorite cookbook. Why didn’t I think of that in the first place? Because, as it turned out, it didn’t matter. They melted together, too. I don’t know what was going wrong, but I was surely glad that I was home alone and the cat doesn’t mind hearing a little cussing from time to time.

By the end of batch number 2, I had a big container full of Tasty But Ugly Snickerdoodles, and I had run out of time. Unless she really wanted to stay up late on Wednesday night, trying again, store-bought would have to do. She dropped me at home to start making dinner while she went to the market.

After dinner, she sliced and packaged the cake. Whatever I did, it was wonderfully moist and spectacularly ginger-y. I did not steal a piece to find this out; my sample was from one of the scraps. The cake was a hit with the older kids, she reported on Thursday night, and the little ones loved sprinkle-covered sugar cookies. Good enough for me.

On Sunday, we had tickets to see a production of the musical Hairspray that friends of ours were doing—at the same theatre where, a year ago May, she asked if I might like to marry her. We planned to pack a picnic, as usual, but the week got away from us and there wasn’t much time left. “What say we order a pizza from the Awesome Shop, and pick it up on the way?” She agreed readily. We had a quick text-message exchange with the couple who were joining us for the show—no anchovies, no garlic—and decided what to do about dessert. I did not have the emotional fortitude to try another batch of snickerdoodles, and I wasn’t going to take the bin of broken ones…

But I could use them to make a pie crust.

And I did.

Chocolate-Marscapone-Cherry Pie with Don’t Even Snicker-doodle Crust

For the crust
Crumble failed snickerdoodles in the food processor until you have at least 2 cups; pour into a large bowl.
Add 1/3 stick melted butter (no need to add sugar). Stir to combine.
Press moistened crumbs into a 9-inch pie pan, leaving at least a 1-inch high rim.
Bake until golden brown; cool completely before filling.

Filling, adapted from Bake or Break
Melt 8 oz. chocolate, chopped (I used 3/4 dark, 1/4 milk). (I did it in the microwave on low power, stirring ever 30 seconds or so). Cool the chocolate slightly.
While the chocolate cools, whip in a stand mixer 8 oz. marscapone cheese, softened.
Add the cooled chocolate and 2 tbsp cherry preserves to the cheese; stir to combine.
Spoon the filling into the cooled pie crust and chill for 2 hours.
Serve with whipped cream. If you’re at home, this should be home-whipped, and topped with shaved chocolate. If you’re going on a picnic, don’t make your self crazy: pick up a can at the market on the way.
Accept compliments graciously. And enjoy the show.
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We hear that Bake Off is changing networks, and losing its two charming hosts and the more delightful of its two judges. Ah, well. We’ll still bake.

 

 

 

 

 

How the Other Half Lunches

Painted in Waterlogue

It’s been one of those weeks–a lot of work, a lot of travel, some dinners out, some very late nights. We haven’t done any significant cooking. I won’t say the cupboard was bare, but I had a feeling it would be one of those Stump the Cook meals where you scrounge around the back of the fridge and hope for the best. We’d both had very long days. Between her work and phone calls dealing with an ailing relative, and my back-to-back-to-back rehearsals, I  wasn’t sure we had the energy to be creative enough to come up with something we’d both like enough to be satisfied.

We were in separate cars, so when we left choir practice she went home to feed the cats–I’m not sure what it says about us that we made sure there was plenty of cat food in the house!–and I headed to forage.

I went to Subway. It might not be a fine-dining experience, but it would be fine. There are worse options, certainly.

I looked at the menu board with thoughts of choosing a foot-long sandwich to share, and then decided to make lunch easy, too. I ordered two foot-longs, quite different. Sandwich #1 was rotisserie chicken with provolone, lettuce, and pickle on Italian bread. #2 was pastrami on whole wheat with swiss, spinach, and cucumber. Tomato and brown mustard on both.

I gave her half of the chicken sandwich and took half of the pastrami for myself. I wrapped the rest and stored them in the fridge. She took the rest of the pastrami for lunch, and I brought the rest of the chicken with me.

 

I’m not delighted to have served sandwiches for dinner and lunch, but neither of us had to scrounge in a desk drawer to find a granola bar under the extra staples. I can attest that both sandwiches were tasty, and that’s good enough for now.

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The Luck of the Not-Quite-Irish

Painted in Waterlogue

Aside from Thanksgiving turkey, holiday celebrations at the Country House don’t call for a specific food. Christmas is Christmas, whether there’s boeuf bourguignon or leftover spaghetti on the table. Memorial Day might be the unofficial start of summer’s grilling season, but what goes on the grill varies from year to year. There might be pork on New Year’s Day, but whether it’s smoked sausage or spare ribs doesn’t matter to us.

Then there’s St. Patrick’s Day. That’s not a big deal. Neither of us claims significant Irish heritage. The thing to celebrate, really, was the successful opening of my show that meant A Weeknight at Home—the first in ages. We certainly weren’t going to celebrate with green beer. (Ew. Whether it’s green or not.)

Fried chicken would have been appropriately festive, but I wanted to do something out of the ordinary. A slow-braised pot of corned beef and cabbage would be a nice change, but I don’t have a time machine that would have let start the braise before we left for work. If I wanted to be even remotely Irish-themed, improvisation would be required. Or, at least, a trip to the deli.

I picked up a pound of sliced corned beef. A bag of sauerkraut. Carrots were in the fridge at home. I considered letting the prepared-foods counter do the work of mashed potatoes, but a two-serving tray seemed awfully dear at $12.99, and a 5-pound bag of spuds was on sale for under a dollar.

We nibbled a little aged cheddar-flavored-with-Irish-whiskey as a starter.  That was as close to drunken debauchery as our St. Patrick’s Day would get.

I scrubbed and diced the potatoes, skin-on: the mash wouldn’t be as creamy, but it’d be healthier. Besides, I like potato skin. In the time it took the potatoes to cook, I rinsed the kraut and grated a couple of carrots into it to temper the tang, and added a little caraway seed and a grating of black pepper. This went to warm in a saucepan. (Sauerkraut is, of course, not part of an authentically Irish corned beef supper. So what? We like kraut.)  The corned beef was tossed in a hot skillet until slightly crisped.

The kraut-and-beef was piled on toasted home-baked bread. It wasn’t rye, but home-baked seemed more authentic–or at least better than store-bought. A semi-fluffy mound of mash said “Potato famine? What potato famine?”  There were green beans, just because. It was not in the least what Paddy O’Whomever’s ma would have served, but we enjoyed it.

As for luck? Well, sometimes you make your own.

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Breakfast for Messiaen’s Nephew

Painted in Waterlogue

I had a summer job in a church a long time ago where the pastor had apparently been burned by bad improvisers. “I don’t care what you play,” he said, “but you have to have music in front of you.” I knew he didn’t quite mean that; he would most assuredly have been unhappy with “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” as an offertory. I agreed to do as he wished, though I thought it was a pretty ridiculous restriction. One day, feeling a little cranky about it, I finished the communion hymn and saw that there were still people processing to the altar. I turned the book upside down and, reading the music as if it had been intended that way, slowly and carefully played the same hymn upside down and backwards.

 

 

IMG_0103She came into the kitchen this morning and found a Mason jar of soup, containers of grapes and pretzels, a hard-boiled egg, and her travel mug filled with tea. “Wow, this looks amazing!” she said. “And you don’t know the half of it,” I replied. I gestured to a baking rack on which four chocolate croissants were cooling.

“You…made…chocolate…croissants?!”

“Well, when a guy can’t sleep he has to do something…”

Then I fessed up. I’d slept pretty well. I woke up once, checked on the cat, and wondered if it was time to put the croissants in the oven. The cat was fine; at 4:00 AM, it wasn’t baking time, so I went back to sleep.

“But you baked them.”

Yes. While I was baking cornbread to go with last night’s chili, I opened a package I’d bought at a national market and set some frozen croissants out to rise overnight. I set the oven to start pre-heating 20 minutes before I came downstairs. The croissants looked awful last night: pasty white folds of frozen dough, like sloppily folded comforters for a dollhouse.  Overnight they’d risen beautifully. I brushed them with a little egg-wash, and baked them while I finished breakfast-and-lunch prep and she got ready for work. It was astonishingly simple.

Out of the oven, they looked exactly like I’d hoped they would: beautiful golden brown pain au chocolat. When it was cool enough to handle, I put one in a paper-towel-padded container and asked her to leave the lid off until just getting on the train. (Personally, I wouldn’t have had the willpower to refrain from eating it on the way, but she’s very disciplined. Also, she hates getting crumbs on her clothes.)

One chocolate piece had fallen out of a croissant on the parchment that lined the baking sheet. I tasted it. “Hm. Sweeter than I remember, but still good.”

My memory was of the pain au chocolat I’d had on my trip to France. The chocolate inside the croissants there was fabulously bittersweet. This chip was better than Hershey’s, but that’s not saying much. The ones she’d had on a trip to London probably weren’t authentically French either, but she said these looked just as good.

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Croissant, safely arrived at the office. 

 

There was respectful silence after I finished the hymn-in-retrograde-inversion. The priest stood for the post-communion prayer, looked up to the choir loft, and called my name.

I am so busted, I thought.

“Was that one of yours?” (He knew I’m a composer.)

“Well…it was an arrangement.” I said meekly.

He loosed a contented sigh and smiled at the congregation as if his summer-substitute organist was the grand-nephew of Olivier Messiaen. “Just like Paris, France.”

My croissant was assez bon. The chocolate was sweeter than I’d like, but the pastry was flaky and light-as-air. It wasn’t as good as if I strolled to the patisserie on the corner, but we didn’t have to take a transatlantic flight. Even Messiaen’s nephew couldn’t argue with that.

Painted in Waterlogue

 

Just Enough

Painted in Waterlogue

The show I’m music-directing has finally opened. It feels artistically satisfying to those of us on- and backstage, and it’s pleasing the audiences enough that the producers have already announced an extension. I’d like to think our production would please the creators of the show, though it might not: although our rehearsal materials include the “Definitive” score, our budget doesn’t allow for the “definitive” 18-piece orchestra. I’ve got seven players (including myself, not-quite-ideally conducting from the keyboard). Rather than a large theatre orchestra with a strong rhythm section, I have thought of us as a rock band with strings and horns. It’s enough; and thinking of the band this way gives me a way to make a virtue of what some might consider a deficiency.

After nine performances or run-throughs in a week, it was time for dinner at home. I sent her an iMessage as I was getting into the car:

Please set the oven to 400 and take the pizza dough out of the refrigerator (unless you’d rather have something else for dinner).

She replied that she had done—and as for the possibility of something else,

Nope! 🙂

She went back to her chores and I continued driving home, thinking about the pizza-to-be. I knew we had a package of turkey pepperoni and an a open jar of sauce. We’d had some mozzarella, cheese but I wasn’t sure if there were any left; if not, I was confident there’d be some other variety. I didn’t know about vegetables, but was determined not to stop at the market. This week had been exhausting; I didn’t want dinner to be ready at bedtime.  Whatever was there would be fine.

The dough had rested nicely on the counter and rolled out beautifully thin. I slid it onto a cornmeal-dusted pizza peel and spooned on a little sauce–just a little. There were olives and onions and a yellow bell pepper; I thinly sliced just a little of each. There was just enough mozzarella to dot the top of the pie. It slid perfectly smoothly onto the waiting pizza stone. I set the oven timer and made a little salad: romaine lettuce, a few halved grape tomatoes, and a little pickled cauliflower. I added a bit of guacamole to some good bottled salad dressing and whisked it into creamy togetherness.

Painted in Waterlogue

A composition teacher of mine says, “When something is good, you must ask yourself, ‘Should there be more?’” Often, the answer is yes. But not always. I’ve disappointed myself with plenty of soggy-crust pizzas laden with piles of cheese, puddles of of sauce, and piles of toppings. Not this time. A little restraint, and there was a pretty perfect pizza and a simple salad.

Over dinner, we enjoyed an episode of Tea Leone Maintains World Peace While Wearing Great ClothesWe watched a second. We considered a third, and then thought better of it; on Sunday night at the end of a long week that was leading into another quite like it, it was bedtime.

There are pot-roast Sundays and take-out Sundays and bowls of cereal Sundays; there are big family dinners and cheese and crackers eaten alone; and there are some in between. A little cooking, a little conversation, a little entertainment. Just enough.

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