Apr 272012
 

Decorated Sugar Cookies from bibberche.com

I was in my early twenties when I first encountered the All-American Cookie. Where I came from, mothers and grandmothers turned their noses disdainfully at a cake that had less than four layers, many of my friends in grade school had hands-on experience with Swiss meringue, and cookies definitely came from a box bought at the grocery store.

My first American cookie experience involved the dough that came from a tube. It did not catch me completely off guard as it followed a gigantic mountain of nachos chips drowned in melted Velveeta cheese, and an odd ritual of passing thin, unfiltered cigarettes from hand to hand, around and around (which I found very unhygienic). I figured I’d roll with the local customs, having accepted a long time before the old adage “When in Rome…” Nachos tasted pretty good, particularly when chased with a sip of beer from a bottle – a deliberate act of defiance, as every single one of my male friends and relatives would shudder at the mere thought of imbibing the amber liquid without the proper glass (emphasis on proper).

Refrigerator cookies in a tube were the cheapest we could find, but once I meandered around bodies sprawled on the floor, squinting to avoid smoke, I stuffed two or three freshly baked cookies in my mouth and threw my head behind in bliss, giggling, convinced that I have figured out the secret of life on Earth. I wish I had thought of writing it all down, as the euphoria dissipated by the morning, and the revolutionary Eureka! moment vanished.

I learned in time that it was not a weird version of Marlboros that we were passing around, that nachos tasted much better with real cheese, and that cookies were a fool-proof way to anyone’s heart. I could smoothly adjust to the cultural shock as I did not have my Serbian matriarchs breathing down my neck and admonishing me for taking the easy way out.

Decorated Sugar Cookies from bibberche.com

My sister-in-law smirked disgustedly at perfectly balanced billowy whites and creamy yellows in my Iles Flotantes, but could not stop smiling when I made a batch of peanut butter cookies. I spent hours roasting and grinding hazelnuts, mixing them in a fragrant dough, cutting out tiny one-inch circles, baking them, making small sandwiches with crème anglaise in the middle and dipping them in chocolate ganache, only to hear some of my co-workers complain that my petit-fores were too sweet. Next time I brought oatmeal raisin cookies to work, and everyone thought I could part Lake Michigan.

Once I became a mother, I surrendered to the unbeatable appeal of kitschy and gawdy birthday cakes my daughters wanted as they went beautifully along the pink and purple sequined dresses and feathered tutus they ogled whenever we went shopping. It’s what’s on the outside that counted, and again I rolled with the accepted, but feeling just a little bit guilty when I cut through the cake heavily topped with unbearably sweet turquoise or fuchsia frosting that clung to my palate, as I heard Mother’s tsk, tsk, tsk in my head and remembered masterfully assembled delectable tortes of my youth.

Chocolate chip cookies were the family favorites, but I started making sugar cookies just because I knew my girls would be happy: pink and red for Valentine’s Day, brown and orange for Halloween, red, white, and green for Christmas. That it was less of an effort than making crepes or a cake with summer fruit – desserts that Mother would declare utterly pedestrian and not worthy of guests – was just a bonus for which I was immensely thankful. After all, Mother was not in the kitchen with me.

And then I started reading food blogs and I could not stop. I discovered people who could weave magic with their words, people who captured a perfect moment with their camera, people who were on “per tu” with French cooking, and people who made stunning, perfectly decorated cookies. I was in awe as I pored through the posts, admiring the patience, creativity, and dexterity of cookie-makers, envious of their skill and artistry.

LA Food Bloogers Bake Sal from bibberche.comI don’t consider myself an accomplished baker and I am sure Mother would agree. Yeast does not scare me any more and I don’t think twice about pulling my 25-pound bag of Five Roses flour out of the pantry to play with a cake or two. But decorated cookies were one of last culinary bastions I was determined to conquer.  And conquer them I did, indeed! Even if I spent days analyzing, reading, listening, and watching before I even pulled the butter out to soften. Even if I set my iPhone alarm to go off every minute when the cookies were in the oven, just to monitor their progress and attain that perfect hue of barely golden edges. Even if I stayed up until way past the witching hour to finish decorating them, feeling like Bugs Bunny trying in vain to get rid of colorful swirling circles in front of my eyes. (You know the cartoon I’m talking about, right?)

I am sure that skinny, unfiltered, fragrant cigarettes won’t make an appearance at my house any time soon, and neither will the mounds of Velveeta-smothered nacho chips. As for the cookies, I have to say that I have come a long way since the cheap, refrigerated dough version. I tasted them, bite by delectable bite, and even though the experience did not reveal the secrets of life, I felt at peace with the world around me.

My bouquet of cookies will join hundreds of different baked goods on Saturday, April 28, for the annual LA Food Blogger Bake Sale that supports Share Our Strength organization founded to eradicate kids’ hunger. All over the country, food bloggers are coming together, surrounded by clouds of powdered sugar and cocoa, sending off heady whiffs of vanilla, coconut, and lemon, and setting up the most amazing displays of cupcakes, cookies, truffles, caramels, pies, and brownies.

If you are in the neighborhood, visit us at BLD Restaurant in Beverly Hills for a chance to experience Candyland live! Last year I made four different kinds of truffles. You can read about my experience in this post: Casting Bread Upon the Waters. To see the list of all participating LA bloggers, click on the Bake Sale logo on the right.

Sugar Cookies Bouquet from bibberche.com

ALL AMERICAN SUGAR COOKIES

The recipe for sugar cookies is a basic one that can be found anywhere. Royal icing recipe came with the Wilton’s jar of meringue powder. For the tutorials and videos on mixing color with icing and decorating cookies visit SweetopiaSweet Adventures of Sugar Belle, Bake at 350, and Lila Loa. My educational train ride through their blogs brought me many moments of inspiration, awe, joy, and admiration.

Ingredients:

For cookies:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks, 230gr) butter at room temperature (not too soft)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg (it should be cold)
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp lemon zest or ¼ tsp lemon extract

Royal Icing:

  • 1 lb (a little less than 500gr) powdered sugar
  • 3 Tbsp meringue powder (Wilton’s brand has vanilla and cream of tartar, so you don’t have to add any)
  • 6 Tbsp warm water

Directions:

Mix together flour and salt in a medium bowl. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg, vanilla, and lemon zest (or extract). Add the flour and mix until thoroughly combined.

Turn the dough on the counter and shape into a disc. Wrap in plastic and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Dust the counter with a bit of flour and flatten the dough with a rolling pin to ¼ inch thickness. Cut the shapes as desired using various cookie cutters. Place the cookies on a cookie sheet covered with a piece of parchment paper. (If you are making cookie pops, insert the popsicle stick in the base of the cookie with your right hand (if you are right-handed), keeping your left hand atop of the cookie to prevent the stick from piercing it; if the stick is bare on the back, take a piece of dough and patch the spot). Place the cookie sheet wit the cookies in the freezer for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Bake your cold cookies for 10-13 minutes, depending on your oven. Let them cool for a few minutes on the cookie sheet and transfer to the cooling rack.

In a large bowl combine powdered sugar and meringue powder. Add warm water and mix with a hand mixer for 10 minutes. Let the icing rest, to allow air bubbles to disappear.

Apr 242012
 

Pound Cake from bibberche.com

It’s a quarter past three and they’re at the gate, their long fingers clutching the bars. They pretend they are in jail, and when I turn the key to liberate them, they shuffle across the brown-colored concrete of the courtyard, howling in make-believe despair, arms flailing, their eyebrows turned into apostrophes, their backpacks magically turned into iron shackles, putting an unbearable weight onto their hunched shoulders. They nudge each other while they take the stairs, two steps at a time, and arrive at the apartment door giggling, the jail game forgotten, another one already brewing.

They race each other through the doors of their bedroom hoping to make it first to the bathroom, leaving behind a trail of discarded jackets, notebooks, and shoes. Their shrieks of delight echo around the house and follow them when they emerge from their sanctuary in a tangle of long legs and intertwined arms, my beautiful middle school bunch of tumbleweed.

They skip into the kitchen inhaling the smells wafting from the stove or the oven, trying to guess what surprises I might have for them. Their senses are already discernible and they twist their heads left and right trying to find the best nose angle for deciphering all the aromatic ingredients that combine to fill the house with the unforgettable smell of comfort and security.

My Girls from bibberche.com

In between sniffing and inquisitive glances, they bombard me with short, explosive recaps of their day, overlapping each other’s excited expressions, competing in speed-talking and emphasis, until I manage to get a vivid picture of all things wonderful and horrible that marked their day.

While I lay the white plates on the counter, they drag papers from their backpacks and run back, elbows working overtime to ensure the coveted front position. I shift my eyes from the serrated knife zigzagging through the buttery crumb of the cake and look at barely marked essays and math tests, a smile of pride alighting my face. I carefully place yellow slabs on the plates and scoop a few heaping spoonfuls of sliced strawberries that yielded to sugar, becoming softer and pliable. The cake thirstily absorbs the scarlet juices as the red fruit triangles glisten like jewels. A dollop of whipped cream, barely kissed by sugar, nestles comfortably on top, like a snow cap on a mountain. A light dust of powdered sugar wafts from my fingers and settles over the plates.

They squeal and yelp, their eyes wide open in anticipation, their excitement more than enough to show their gratitude. As I hold the plates and start toward the dining room table, they encircle my waist with their arms, snaking around me lovingly, resting their heads on my shoulders, the soft hair tickling my neck. I lean my head to one side, and then the other, inhaling their sweet smell, dividing my time equally between a straight strawberry-blonde and a wavy light brunette, elated and saddened at the same time that my girls are taller then me and heading out with ever accelerated speed.

Farmers' Market Strawberries from bibberche.com

They settle at the table and poke at their treat reverently, the forks leaving trails in bright red juices and coloring the pristine white of the whipped cream pink. When the forks cut through the mound, the shrieks and yelps are silenced for a moment. They proceed slowly, allowing barely warm strawberry-soaked cake to melt on their tongues, savoring harmonious flavors that play pleasant sensory games with their taste buds.

They bring their clean-looking plates to the sink and retreat again to the room, their faces basking in afterglow. For a long time I hear only rustling of paper and dull thuds as they pull their overweight text books off the shelves and down to the floor. I wrap the remaining pound cake and wipe pink strawberry drops that speckle the counter top, still smiling from the retreating line thrown my way: “I am so happy you are my mother!”

Pound Cake from bibberche.com

POUND CAKE – AN AFTER SCHOOL DELIGHT

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, sifted
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 stick (4 oz, 4 Tbsp, 115gr) of butter at room temperature
  • 1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs
  • ½ cup milk
  • powder sugar (optional)
  • strawberries (optional – if you choose to use strawberries, slice them and place them in a bowl with some sugar (1 Tbsp per cup) to macerate for 30 minutes before serving)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9×5 loaf pan.

In a medium bowl, stir flour, baking powder, and salt. In a large bowl, cream butter with sugar until fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs, and mix until well combined. Add flour alternating with milk until smooth.

Pour into the pan and flatten the top surface. Bake for 55-60 minutes until done (I usually stick a bamboo skewer in the middle and if it comes out dry or almost dry, the cake is done.) Let it cool off for 5 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Serve dusted with powder sugar, with macerated strawberries and whipped cream, or with everything, as I did.

Apr 182012
 

Roasted Tomato Soup from bibberche.com

I met Christianna of Burwell General Store blog last May at a BlogHer Food conference in Atlanta. We stayed up one night over a bottle or two of really good red wine and a sparkle of friendship was ignited. Even though both of us call Southern California our home, we have been getting to know one another mostly through emails and Twitter. We have so much in common and talking to her feels as if I were speaking to an old friend who can finish my sentences and predict my next thought.

Christianna started Recipe Swap in December 2010, and I joined the wonderful group of bloggers about a year ago. Each month she picks a vintage recipe from an old cookbook she unearthed at a flea-market and throws a culinary challenge to us: we have to be creative and use our inspiration and imagination to twist the recipe, mold it to reflect our personalities and tastes, and give it another life and another form. Every month, on the day when our posts appear, I read the stories and innovative incarnations of the same recipe, delighted each time by unique approaches to a simple list of ingredients.

We have tackled jelly cakewild rabbit with vegetables, hot slaw with mayonnaise dressingmaple syrup cakeToll House cookies, zabaglione, and wild rice dressing, and I am mesmerized again and again by the limitless possibilities of the human mind to modify, adjust, and re-create.

Since December of 2011, we have been working through the book The Second Ford Treasury of Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places, compiled in 1954. Our recipe for April is Tomato Pudding, a specialty side dish offered by Hotel Dilworth, a B&B in Boyne, Michigan.

Tomato Pudding

I had never eaten bread pudding as a child in Serbia; it was a dish I discovered only when I landed, wide-eyed, on the shores of the New World. When I looked at the ingredients for tomato pudding, I sat speechless for several minutes, blinking in confusion, trying to envision a butterfly emerging from a non-descript cocoon hiding in this unappetizing pile of stuff. Bread, boiling water, tomato purée, and a whole cup of brown sugar?

As the fog slowly lifted, ideas started coming to me tentatively. I locked on panzanella, a wonderfully simple Italian peasant dish that combines chunks of crusty, stale bread and sun-ripened tomatoes. But even though I live in Southern California, sun-ripened tomatoes are not here yet, and the bland, store-bought, perfectly round, soulless impersonators could not make the salad sing.

roasted tomatoes from bibberche.comBut then I thought of tomato soup and imagined a crispy, golden-brown grilled cheese sandwich on the side plate next to the bowl of soup.  Once I firmly grabbed that idea by its tail, I clung onto it, delving deeper, putting the plan of action together, with a vision of a comforting meal filled with assertive and complimenting flavors.

Instead of using fresh, inferior tomatoes from the grocery store, I bought a few pounds of meaty Roma tomatoes and roasted them to intensify their sweet notes. I added a roasted red pepper to add a bit of smokiness and texture, as well as another punch of sweetness. I mellowed the harshness of onions and garlic by roasting them, too, and threw in a bunch of thyme and basil to bring out the bold taste of Italian summer in the country.Roasted Tomatoes from bibberche.com

For the grilled cheese sandwich, I chose to pair a robust and hardy Tuscan-style bread with mild and barely nutty Gruyère cheese and slowly caramelized onions finished with a balsamic vinegar reduction. The sandwich mimicked the deep flavors of the soup with a hint of smokiness and that wonderful agro-dolce note.

roasted tomatoesOnce again, I felt an immense sense of accomplishment as my girls and I sat at the table and started eating. The soup was hearty and satisfying, the sandwich a perfect accompaniment with its crunchy texture and mild, melting cheese that trapped caramelized onions in its strings.

I am grateful that I am a part of the vintage Recipe Swap and proud of yet another successful metamorphosis. This is a busy time for both Christianna and me, but now that I have moved even closer, I don’t need a crystal ball to imagine the two of us sitting under the awning of a restaurant somewhere along the Pacific Coast Highway sipping a glass of crisp Prosecco, while the waves break against the beach just a few yards beyond.

CREAMY ROASTED TOMATO AND RED PEPPER SOUP

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs Roma tomatoes (about 10 larger ones)
  • olive oil
  • coarse salt
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped into large chunks
  • 6-7 garlic cloves, unpeeled
  • several sprigs fresh thyme
  • a few basil leaves (optional)
  • coarse salt
  • olive oil
  • 1 large red pepper, roasted, peeled, deseeded, and chopped into large chunks
  • coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

 Directions:

Preheat the oven to 300F.

Slice the tomatoes in half lengthwise and place, cut side up, on a cookie sheet brushed with olive oil (I dipped the cut side into the oil on the bottom and then flipped the tomatoes up – it seemed easier than sprinkling them with oil afterwards). Season with salt and bake for several hours, until shriveled and dark red in color.

Turn the heat of the oven up to 350F. Place onions, garlic, and thyme on a cookie sheet (I used a cast iron skillet), sprinkle with salt and a little bit of olive oil and roast for 25-30 minutes, until softened.

Discard the thyme and squeeze the garlic cloves out of their peels.

In a heavy soup pot combine the tomatoes, roasted onions, garlic, and red pepper. Add 4 cups of water, season with additional salt and freshly ground pepper and heat until the first bubbles appear. Turn off the heat and puree in a blender in batches until creamy and relatively smooth. (Be very careful as the lid can fly off the blender once it starts and you can get burned by hot soup – yes, I am talking from first-hand experience!)

Roasted Tomato Soup from bibberche.com

GRILLED CHEESE WITH GRUYÈRE, CARAMELIZED ONIONS, AND BALSAMIC REDUCTION 

(I had a leftover clove of roasted garlic from the soup and I rubbed the insides of my bread with it, but. It gave the sandwich another layer of depth, pairing well with the garlic in the soup.)

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 large yellow onion, sliced thinly
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • country style bread (I used Tuscan Country Bread from Trader Joe’s)
  • Gruyere, sliced
  • butter
Directions:
Melt butter in a pan on medium heat. Turn the heat down to medium-low, add onions and cook them for 30-40 minutes, until soft and caramelized. Sprinkle with salt and add balsamic vinegar. Cook for another few minutes until the liquid reduces and thickens.
Heat a skillet on medium heat. When hot, add a pat of butter (about 1 teaspoon). Place the cheese to completely cover one slice of bread and pile caramelized onions on top. Cover with another slice of bread and press. Carefully place into the skillet and let it cook for 2-3 minutes, lightly pressing with a spatula. Lift the sandwich and add another pat of butter to the skillet. Flip the sandwich and cook for another couple of minutes, until golden brown and crispy. Cut it in two and serve with soup or without.
I know that you will find the inspiration in the creative takes on this recipe from my fellow participants.



Apr 152012
 

I would like to wish Happy Easter to my family and friends who celebrate today. May your eggs be victorious, your lamb succulent, and your day filled with happiness and laughter.

Христос воскресе!

Uskrsnja jaja from bibberche.com

Apr 122012
 

Buttermilk Biscuits from bibberche.com

It’s spring break week and every day seems like a Sunday. Most of my friends have packed their bags and left sunny California for even warmer, more tropical climates, and I cannot wait to hear their stories of culinary escapades and see their sun-kissed faces once they return to reality.

The girls have been going to the pool every day for a few hours and we are taking walks down to the beach, breathing in the ocean air with full lungs, happy to call this amazing town our home. I let them be lazy, grateful for the moments when they envelope me in their elongated teen limbs and plant soft kisses in my hair and on my cheek. We hug a lot these days and stay in a clinch for minutes, an intertwined statue of femininity at its most fragile state, and at the same time the epitome of strength.

I went to the drugstore on the last day of school and brought home a bag of small, luxurious, nice-smelling, and utterly-meant-to-spoil items, promising them a day of pampering, the three of us the only patrons of the exclusive spa. They ogled pretty bottles and jars and giggled with anticipation, only to leave and continue playing with their Barbies, excited by the interruption, but eager to get back to their stories.

They are starting to like boys just a little bit, but their affection is aimed exclusively at out-of-reach young actors like Asa Butterfield and the adorable kid who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies. Their male schoolmates are still the specimens of an icky, unknown, and hostile species, but I observe the sudden attention they pay to putting together outfits they would wear to school  and at the same time exhale in relief when they innocently pull the plastic box filled with Barbies from underneath their bed.

I indulge them in the kitchen and ask every morning if they crave something special. They stretch their arms and yawn, look at one another, the sleep slowly fading from their semi-closed eyes. This lazy week allows me to to spend time with breakfast and I love the feel of not rushing and expanding my options to include anything they might desire.

Invariably, on one of the mornings, they decided in unison that they wanted biscuits. Biscuits used to intimidate me.  I viewed them as spoiled Southern Belles, finicky and over-sensitive, fragile, pouty, and easily offended. I dreaded the thought that they might turn on me, scorn me for not belonging, and refuse to play nice. But I was determined to win them over and prove that a Southern Slav is as skillful as any Southerner below the Mason-Dixon line to tackle their snobbish peculiarities. I wanted to be accepted into their inner circle–big hats, mint juleps, and fainting spells with the necessary vapors included.

Coming out of the oven they were gorgeous, golden around the edges and pale in the middle, filling the kitchen with their comforting aroma. They perched perkily on the plate, and when the girls reached for them and opened them up, they were flaky, tender, and light, with a crumbly crust. They thirstily accepted the first yellow pad of butter, perfect in their seeming simplicity. I felt vindicated and for just a second I thought I heard the reverberating echo of horses’ hooves disappearing into the distance, as the breeze brought a touch of Southern humid heat into our California home.

Flaky Buttermilk Biscuits from bibberche.com

There are certain things I learned on my quest to attain the perfect, flaky, light biscuits:

1. The butter has to be really cold. I don’t own a food processor and I mix my dough by hand. That’s why I borrowed Mother’s grating method for keeping the butter chilled. The more time the flour, the dough, and the biscuits spend in the fridge, the better.

2. Do not overwork your dough, or the biscuits will be tough. I cut my biscuits in squares to avoid the remnants form the circles, as they always make for tougher biscuits, having been rolled several times.

3. Once you shaped and placed them on cookie sheet, you can cover them with a plastic wrap and freeze them. To bake them, let them sit at room temperature for 10 minutes.

4. The biscuits should be eaten immediately.

5. If you don’t have buttermilk, you can make your own in minutes. Measure ¾ cup regular milk and squeeze 1 Tbsp of lemon juice. The acid will slightly curdle the milk and turn it into buttermilk! You can use it immediately.

SOUTHERN BELLE BUTTERMILK BISCUITS

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all purpose flour*
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 8 Tbsp very cold butter
  • ¾ cups cold buttermilk

* I was not able to find White Lilly flour that everyone recommends for quick, flaky breads, as it has much less gluten then the all-purpose flour. Next time I will have to experiment and substitute some of the all-purpose flour with cake flour, just for comparison.

Directions:

Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Using the side with the biggest holes on your grater grate the butter as quickly as you can. Mix with a fork and add buttermilk. Mix until combined. Turn the dough onto a very lightly floured kitchen counter and knead just a few times. (The dough will be slightly wet). Wrap in the plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 20 minutes to allow butter to cool off.

Preheat the oven to 475F.

Turn the dough out on the lightly floured counter and flatten into a rectangle with a rolling pin without pushing too hard and overworking the dough. It should be about ½ inch thick. Using a sharp knife (or even better a pizza cutter) cut into 2 inch squares. Sprinkle with a little flour and place on a cookie sheet. (If the time allows, put the cookie sheet in the freezer for several minutes to ensure that the butter stays chilled.) Bake for 15-20 minutes until golden. Serve immediately.

Last year: Rosemary Focaccia

Apr 062012
 

Creamy Rice Pudding from bibberche.com

There was no kindergarten when I was growing up in Yugoslavia, and my first attempts at socializing started at the ripe age of five in preschool. While most of my classmates in senior grade were veterans, jaded and resilient, skillful at banter and repartee, as well as avoiding elbow nudges in the lunch line, I was a novice… a wide-eyed, timid, and precocious child, too serious and mature to fit in, and not at all flexible enough to fight for a spot at the forefront.

Zoe's CardMaking friends was never an easy game for me and it took a lot of time and a few amazing people to convince me that I was someone good enough to call a friend. I decided to switch continents more than twenty years ago and putting the ocean between me and my friends was one of the most difficult decisions in my life. I have several shoe boxes filled with letters framed (from the days before email) with that old red, white, and blue airmail insignia that used to thrill me when I’d open the mailbox. These magical letters travel with me every time I move.  I cannot part with pages and pages of words that arrived from afar when I felt I was utterly alone in my new country.

I depended on my tribe to help me with advice, to encourage me when I needed a prompt, and to admonish me when I was taking a wrong turn. They were on the other side of the world, but airmail letters (par avion) turned to emails and webcam calls thanks to the technology that I despised as a haughty Liberal Arts college student. We were as connected as if we were living on the same street. I embraced every facet of communication trying to stay close to my family and friends, knowing they were only a Skype call away when I needed them.

But I am in California now, nine hours behind European time. When I am sipping my second glass of wine close to midnight, they areAnya's Card wide awake at work, blinded by sunshine and completely removed from the melancholy mood that engulfs me. In a state of utmost desolation a few weeks ago, when it seemed that the world was collapsing all around me and I was sinking deeper and deeper into a quicksand pit, I called one of my best friends and when he answered on his cell phone, I sobbed my story to him, utterly displacing him and forcing him into a state of panic induced by the abrupt cessation of the call, as my Skype credits evaporated.

Unbeknownst to me, that call started a chain reaction with him calling my sister in Germany, who called my daughter in Berkeley, who in turn called me as soon as she woke up that Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day party somewhere on campus. My tribe was pulling together for me, reaching through the ether and joining to come to my aid. I called for their support and they aligned forces beautifully, prepared to listen to my incoherent cries and offer as much comfort as they could from that far away.

But another tribe was reaching out to me, enveloping me in soft, billowy words of support, anchoring me while I was adrift, convincing me that California sunshine is for real and that one day soon the clouds in my eyes would disappear. For a moment, I felt abandoned and alone just like in preschool, but when my email, Facebook, and Twitter exploded with words of concern and wishes to help, I was overwhelmed. I knew I still had an enormously steep slope to climb to get myself out of the hole, but realizing that I would not be alone on that adventure, made it appear easier.

GiftsMy birthday on March 20th was threatening to be one of the worst days of my life, but instead I floated on this cloud of warm and fuzzy feelings and I felt as if I were receiving small injections of energy every time a new wish would come my way. I was not able to lift myself up and face the ugliness that surrounded me, but my friends were there, in real life and across the wires, listening to me, holding my hand, sending sweet words of support and love, and making me see the future much brighter and liberating than I could have ever envisioned.

My gloom melted little by little while I sipped cool prosecco on an afternoon with a friend at a tapas bar… when the mailman handed me a big package filled with the most carefully chosen edibles that another friend’s children picked for mine… when I donned a silly glittery crown at a local Mexican restaurant and blew out the candles while everyone around me sang “Happy Birthday!”… when a friend from Canada sent me a fresh-from-the-printing-press copy of the book her husband just published… when a beautifully written card arrived in the mail hiding within its fold a gift certificate for Trader Joe’s… when I sipped a cappuccino at a localGifts mall with the first friend I made through my blog… when my girls handed me their meticulously crafted birthday cards while a candle burned in a flourless chocolate cake they baked for me… when a friend from the East Coast soothed me patiently for hours while I cried and another friend from the East Coast managed to shake me out of a moment of despair… when I opened a bag full of cosmetics sitting in the passenger seat after a high school play… when a Twitter friend generously offered her accommodations if I ever needed them… and when another invited me to a wonderful event as a guest…. all these things shined light into a darkness I couldn’t bear alone.

GiftsI am still using Skype as the umbilical cord that connects me to my family and friends overseas, but I know that I am not alone on the western edge of the American continent. My tribe is with me and my path seems to be illuminated by a thousand scintillas floating my way from all over the world. And I feel safe.

There is comfort food and there is safe food. Rice pudding always gave a smell and a taste that made me feel safe and I can taste it even without the recipe… the smell of it riding on the words of those who have proved to me that I am not so alone as I sometimes feel.

 

RICE PUDDING

Ingredients:

  • 250gr Arborio rice
  • 1 quart (1 l) water
  • 2-3 cups of milk
  • ¼ cups granulated sugar
  • ½ cup raisins (optional)
  • 2 tsp cinnamon

Directions:

Rinse the rice and place in the heavy pot. Cover with the water and heat to boil. Turn the heat to low and simmer for 12-15 minute, until almost done and water almost evaporates.

Add the milk little by little and cook on low heat, stirring frequently, for 20-25 minutes, until creamy and thickened (depending on the type and initial doneness of the rice, you might need between 2 and 3 cups of milk). Keep in mind that it will thicken more as it stands after it’s taken off the heat.

Stir in the raisins if using and sugar and pour into serving dishes. Sprinkle with cinnamon and let stand at room temperature. (You can also refrigerate it if you choose).