Cooking with Maine Women Writers: cake…and more cake!

April 9th, 2014 by Laura Taylor

The arrival of a new issue of Baker’s Notes, published by Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland, is always a cause for a little celebration at my desk. It doesn’t happen often, being only a bi-annual publication, but I always look forward to it. I love to see what recipes they’ve decided to share this time and pore over all the beautiful photographs of beautiful baked goods. (I can’t be the only one who enjoys looking at and reading about food nearly as much as eating it?)

My daughter turned 4 this past Sunday and when I thought about what cake I was going to make, using a recipe from Baker’s Notes and then blogging it here seemed a logical choice. (I do love to multi-task!) I actually ended up using three recipes from the same issue of Baker’s Notes – their everyday yellow cake (transformed into cake pops) and their one bowl chocolate cake (made into cupcakes) with ring ding-a-ling filling, which I used to frost the cupcakes. Every last bite was delicious. (If you’ve never had one of their ring ding-a-lings, I highly recommend them!)

We went for a spring theme – bee cake pops buzzing amongst the flowers and sheep cupcakes grazing on a field of gluten-free grass cupcakes. They were all super easy and a huge hit with all the party guests, young and old. Most importantly, the birthday girl loved them!


The recipes came from Issue No. 2: Sweet, published in 2011/2012. (I’m sharing the yellow cake recipe below – I’d recommend finding a copy of Issue 2 yourself and making the chocolate cake and ring ding-a-ling filling as well!)

Note: you will need a kitchen scale for this recipe.

every day YELLOW CAKE

INGREDIENTS

  • 7 ounces (0.44 pounds) cake flour
  • 7 ounces (0.44 pounds) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature and cut into 1″ cubes
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 4 egg yolks (room temperature)
  • 3 tablespoons whole milk (room temperature)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

TECHNIQUE

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and have a well greased 9-inch round high-sided cake pan ready. In a stand mixer with paddle attachment combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Stir on low for 30 seconds to combine dry ingredients and aerate them. Add the soft butter cubes and mix on low until all of the butter is incorporated and the mixture looks like wet sand. Add 1/2 cup milk and increase mixer to medium speed. Mix for 90 seconds, scraping the sides of the bowl a couple of times. Whisk yolks, 3 tablespoons milk, and vanilla together and add to batter. Scrape down sides of bowl then mix one minute more. The batter should be very silky with no lumps. Pour into the cake pan and bake for 45 minutes until golden brown.

My notes: I do not have a high-sided round cake pan, so I baked this in an 8×8 square pan and it turned out beautifully. (Although, since the final goal, in my case, was cake pops it didn’t really matter how my cake looked – it all got crumbled in the end!)

Private thoughts made public

March 24th, 2014 by Sophie Glidden-Lyon

For the past few months, I’ve been pouring over the diaries of Vinalhaven native Lucy C. Williams. She filled daily journals during the bulk of the 1980′s and 90′s, faithfully recording weather, chores, the state of her garden and the health of her neighbors. Her grandson Bill makes many appearances – helping her with the house, struggling to find work or dealing with the various family dramas that would be familiar to anyone with siblings and in-laws. Her life is quiet and full of routine, but it is exactly that kind of ordinary, day-to-day chronicling that I find so interesting. Journals are the chance to glimpse into a person’s internal world, unique in their honesty. I don’t mean honesty in the sense that they lack bias, but more the idea that these were words written by one person and for one person only. I think it is safe to assume that Lucy never thought these journals would be read by anyone but her, and once I was able to reconcile myself to the fact that she may have found this intrusive, it led me down a very interesting path.

How do you record events when you are never intending to share those records with anyone? When it comes to familial struggles or pain, Lucy often skips over details entirely. After all, she knows the details already and does not need to explain anything. For me, the reader, it means I have to put puzzle pieces together, and I’m often guessing when it comes to who did what to who. What Lucy does record is how badly these fights and dramas are wearing her down, in a way that suggests she doesn’t share how she feels with her children or grandchildren. There is a lot more emotional truth in her writing than there is clear recording of events. This is part of what has been so rewarding for me while reading these journals. There is so much insight into a person’s life to be found here. The authors are, essentially, talking to themselves, engaging with their own thoughts in a way that can’t be achieved in quite the same way through oral histories, or even letters.

As I continue through her journals, I’m sure more and more will become clear concerning her grandsons and the dysfunction that keeps popping up between them, but more than that, I’m excited to learn more about how journals open up whole new worlds for historians and archivists. I’m excited to tackle emerging questions – how does a person’s journaling voice differ from how they might have spoken or written with other people? Are there things they might keep off the page entirely, censoring themselves even in their private thoughts? And what does that say about the author? These are things I’ve already asked myself about Lucy, but the beauty of journals is that any answers to those questions would likely be completely different with a different person. It brings a deep sense of the personal, and of individuality, to archival work, for which I’m very grateful.

The Ant Girls

March 17th, 2014 by Cathleen Miller

My day began on Friday with the pleasure of looking, following the lines and textures of ant-marks, and listening to stories of making.  Rebecca Goodale (one of the Ant Girls) brought tiny books, pamphlet and coptic-bound books, books that came tumbling out of their boxes, books with wings and pieces of leaves, books that spoke of the collaboration created by their colony of four.


The books and all of the other components of this two-year work-in-progress are on their way to the USM Atrium Gallery in Lewiston for the show “Ant Farm: At the Nexus of Art and Science” opening April 11.  The “Ant Girls” (Rebecca Goodale, Colleen Kinsella, Vivien Russe and Dorothy Schwartz) have been working as a group, passing paper and books between them, all members making marks on every piece of work.  The collaboration formed a strong bond among the four women, making the recent passing of Dorothy Schwartz all the more poignant as they prepared for the opening of their show and worked to finish pieces.  You can follow their process on their blog “Ant Girls”.

I am looking forward to the show on April 11, and am especially excited to see the installations of fungus farms and nuptial swarms.

One of the best parts of my job is getting to see fresh work that is still filled with the energy of the creators.  I enjoy hearing the stories of creation, too–the conceptualization of an idea that finds its fruition in something we can hold or look at close up.  It is a deep thrill for me, and an honor, to witness the creative process and its products.  I look forward to housing some of these beautiful creations in our collection to educate and excite students, researchers, and others interested in the intersection between art and science.

Cooking with Maine Women Writers: butternut squash ravioli

March 4th, 2014 by Laura Taylor

ravioli

This time of year, it can be hard to eat local. More squash? Potatoes? Again? Sigh.

We’re starting to reach the end of our winter stores and might be quite tired of root vegetables, squash and the like. (Personally, I love root vegetables and I adore winter squash but not everyone in my house shares this devotion.)

I decided to try my hand at homemade ravioli to see if I could get the rest of the family to appreciate the wonders of the butternut squash. The recipe comes from a beautiful cookbook here in our collection called Portland, Maine Chef’s Table: Extraordinary Recipes from Casco Bay. I’ve mentioned it before in my post about my semi-successful adventure in gelato-making.

This ravioli recipe is from Local Sprouts. I’ve never had their version, so I can’t say how my homemade one compares – but I will say that it was quite tasty! It was my first time making homemade pasta and while it wasn’t exactly difficult (very easy, in fact) mine turned out a little thicker and tougher than I wished. I guess I need practice!

ravioli

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Sage Brown Butter
(Serves 4-6)

  • 9 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons minced shallots
  • 1 cup roasted butternut squash puree
  • Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
  • 3 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 ounces plus 3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • 1 recipe pasta dough*, rolled out into wide ribbons about 1/8-inch thick
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley leaves, for garnish

In a large saute pan, over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter. Add the shallots and saute for 1 minute. Add the squash puree and cook until the mixture is slightly dry, about 2-3 minutes. Season with salt and white pepper. Stir in the cream and continue to cook for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in 3 tablespoons of the cheese and nutmeg to taste. Adjust seasonings to taste. Cool completely.

Cut the pasta ribbons into 3-inch squares. You will have approximately 40 pieces of dough. Place 2 teaspoons of the filling in the center of each pasta square. Bring one corner of the square to the opposite corner, forming a triangle, and pinch the two open sides to seal the filled pasta completely.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 2-3 minutes or until the pasta floats and is pale in color.

Remove the pasta from the water and drain well.

Season with salt and pepper.

In a large saute pan, melt the remaining 8 tablespoons of butter. Add the sage to the butter and continue to cook until the butter starts to brown. Remove from heat.

To serve: Divide the ravioli between the serving plates. Spoon the brown butter over the pasta. Sprinkle the remaining 2 ounces of grated cheese over the plates and garnish with parsley.

*The intro states: For the Butternut Squash Ravioli…use your favorite pasta dough, or try East Ender’s recipe (see below).

For the pasta:

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1 whole egg
  • Splash of extra virgin olive oil
  • Splash of milk

To make the pasta: Sift flour into a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and add egg yolks, egg, oil, and milk. Using your fingers, slowly mix in flour from the edges, kneading to make a stiff dough. Lightly flour a smooth work surface and turn out the dough, pushing it and kneading with the heels of your hands for 15 minutes. The dough will become silky and elastic as you knead. Gather into a ball and cover with plastic wrap, then refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Take out of the refrigerator, remove plastic wrap, and use a rolling pin, pasta roller, or wine bottle to roll out dough to 1/8-inch thickness.

My notes: I could not get my pasta thin enough, and thus didn’t have nearly 40 squares for filling. I had about half that, which left me with leftover filling. (Yum.) Since I didn’t have as many raviolis, I only used half the butter for the brown butter with sage. I managed to win over one person in the house to the joys of butternut squash, but the two littlest members of the family remain unconvinced.

“I want to write something that matters”: Eleanor Morse visits with White Dog Fell from the Sky

February 27th, 2014 by Catherine Fisher

 

In stark contrast to what meets our eyes as we look out our Maine windows these days, the landscape that Eleanor Morse lays out in White Dog Fell from the Sky is one where the water of the ocean is a figment only to be imagined, where “the heat, the dust, the gray-green foliage, the skinny cows, the goats…,” combine to form a backdrop that is, as she says, itself a character in this story of Africa during Apartheid.

Morse made a generous visit to the MWWC last week to discuss her book, and she began by reading from its first chapter. Isaac, a South African medical student, arrives in Botswana near death and is dumped in a dusty heap on the side of the road, having been smuggled across the border in a hearse to escape the wrath of the white South African Defense Force. He awakens to blue sky and the face of White Dog, who assigns herself as his companion for the journey that follows.

After reading from the book, Morse gave some background on the setting. White Dog Fell from the Sky takes place in Botswana in the mid-1970s, about the time that she herself lived there. Botswana was then still a young country, having gained independence from Britain just six years before, in 1970. It was a fortunate country, on a firm financial footing with an educated, enlightened first president — a good place to be in those days. Radically different, however, was the neighboring Republic of South Africa, which at that time was consumed with Apartheid. Refugees were coming into Botswana from South Africa, and though not modeled on anyone in particular, Isaac is one such seeker of safety.

Morse started the discussion with a question possibly on many minds: “How did I get to Botswana?” “Probably the way many people get to places they don’t expect to: love. I met a man from Botswana while I was going to college at Swarthmore and he was in graduate school at Bowdoin.” When they eventually married, Morse moved to Botswana and both she and her husband took on hectic jobs in national offices, working on issues of health, education and literacy. “We were both fortunate to be engaged in work that mattered,” Morse reflected.

The couple returned to the United States in 1975 with their young son, had another child and eventually parted ways. It took Morse these nearly-four decades to write this book, publishing two others in the interim. “Something in me knew that I needed more experience, that I needed a wider vocabulary of emotional range to write the story. I didn’t know what the story was when I started the book but I knew that it was going to require something of me.”

“What was that?” a member of the group probed.

“It required a good deal of courage, for one thing,” explained Morse. “It wasn’t an easy book to write because of what ended up happening to Isaac. Through a series of mishaps, Isaac ends up being sent back over the border to a prison in South Africa. Those are harrowing scenes and they were harrowing to write. I felt as though I needed every bit of courage I had in me to go there.”

Another issue gave Morse pause when approaching the project. “There was a question when I started writing this book as to whether I had the right to tell the story of a black person as a well-educated white woman…Isaac was a well-educated South African man but he’d grown up in a very different culture and in very different circumstances. There was quite a bit of soul searching before I plunged in…but Isaac’s voice kept coming to me.” Morse asked a writing buddy about her dilemma and her friend said, “That’s what writers do. They cross barriers and make worlds come alive that people don’t know or understand.”

Morse shared that during the writing of White Dog Fell from the Sky, she experienced the abrupt end of a relationship that she had expected would last the rest of her life. The pain of that loss made it “a darker book than it might have been otherwise, but also a deeper book and a better book.”

“How long did it take you to write it?” one guest wanted to know.

“It took three and a half years to write the book and then another year for copy editing, final edits, and deciding on the cover image,” which was quite an engaging process in itself.

Another group member wondered how might the story have changed in the editing process, and Morse described trimming about 14,000 words from the book. “Quite a bit of that was backstory and some broke my heart to let go of…One thing I felt really strongly about was that Botswana and the landscape really be like a character.” Morse was glad that her editor at Penguin was open-minded and honored the frequent reestablishment of setting to keep that character present. And because the editor herself was born in one country and grew up in another, she understood the recurring theme of passing through boundaries that is key to the book.

“I didn’t want the book to be overly political, even though it has to do with the politics of southern Africa at that time. I wanted to be faithful to that but I didn’t want the characters to be existing just to tell a political story.”

Morse said, “The hardest part in writing the book for me is the very beginning, because I don’t have a story that I impose on the characters. For me, a book starts with the characters, sometimes with their voices. It’s a period of puzzling things out, asking, who are they? When I sit down to write, I don’t have a firm idea of what I’m creating. I want to be true to what’s emerging. There’s a lot of listening that goes on, open-hearted listening…I didn’t know that a lot of the things that happened in this book were going to happen. I was sorry that some of them did, but that is part of the process.”

Much of the process has to do with being curious, she says. “When I’m teaching I sometimes talk about following the heat or the energy of something…I want to write something that matters. When I think back in my life, I think I’ve always wanted to get under the surface of things… If I knew what was going to happen in a story, I would never write it.”

Morse pointed out that the main characters in all of her three books have a certain marginality about them. “I am much more interested in marginal characters than in mainstream characters, partly because they are just more interesting.” She describes her childhood self as a figure on the margins, having been the new girl in a number of schools as her family moved with her father’s work as an engineer for GE.

Anne Zill asked Morse if she had a favorite of her three books, and if she saw anything in the first two that might relate to this one.

“I like them all for different reasons,” Morse says. “This is the biggest book and I think for that reason, if I had a favorite, it would be this one, because I feel as though I really stretched my legs in this book and opened my heart in a way. I did so in all three books, but I might have had more to work here with because of life experience. It all enters in.”

Learn more about Eleanor Morse and her books at eleanormorse.com.