cherry & orange jam bars

This week, I’ve been thinking of cherries. One of my favorite parts of summer is taking a bag of cherries on a lazy picnic and letting the sun warm them before eating.

This week has also been about patience. Mostly patience with myself. My anxiety-brain has been hyperactive this week, and I’ve had to work extra hard to stay focused on reality, and not the sharply spun worries my brain manufactures.

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These cherry and orange jam bars were a wonderful bright spot of success this week. I made the jam on Sunday — I literally dumped a pound of still-frozen cherries into a pot with the juice of one lemon and about a half cup of sugar, brought it to a boil, and then simmered on low for around 20 minutes. I poured it into a jar and let it cool in the fridge.

All of the recipes I looked at included oats, and since I was also making oatmeal cookies on Tuesday night, I wanted something more shortbread-like. This is a riff off of Mark Bittman’s Lemon Bars dough, which I made a few weeks ago and really liked.  These ended up crisp on the bottom, and solid enough that the jam didn’t ooze as you ate them.

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Cherry & Orange Jam Bars

3/4 cup butter

1 cup sugar

1/2 tsp vanilla

1 egg

1.5 cups flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

orange zest of one orange

3/4 cup cherry jam

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line an 8×8 pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper and lightly butter.

Cream butter and sugar together until smooth. Beat in egg, vanilla, and orange zest. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt, then fold into butter/sugar mixture. Mix until thoroughly combined.

Press 2/3 of the dough into the pan. Spread the jam over pan, leaving 1/2″ border around the edge (helps keep the jam from cooking to the side of the pan). Pinch small lumps of the remaining dough and “rub” between your fingers to flatten before dropping over the jam.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, until lightly golden and set in the center. Dust with confectioners sugar. Let cool completely before removing from the pan — I popped mine in the fridge overnight. Cut into 16 squares.

I can see lots of possible variations on this — brown butter, pecan or almond flour, different flavors of jam — or even peanut butter & jelly!

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scone thoughts (the rosemary-honey-orange-pecan scones of my dreams)

Baking for R has become a highlight of my week. Each recipe is an opportunity to lose myself a little in research and learning; I want to understand the science of chewy versus crisp cookies, the basic ratios that make up scones and cakes and brownies. Tuesday evenings, when I bake, have become a bright silence that buoys up the first half of the week. Grading and lesson planning are set aside for butter, sugar, eggs, and my beloved KitchenAid. And at the end of the evening, something sweet cooling in the kitchen, I sit down and write R a letter to tuck into the paper bag of treats — sometimes about a poem I’ve read, or a memory this baked good brings up, or a conversation we had that I’ve continued to think about.

A few weeks ago, I did a side-by-side comparison of two scone types: these flaky scones and these cream-only scones (scroll down the thread) with half a recipe of this glaze. The cream-only scones turned out just like Starbucks scones — crumbly, almost cake-like, and a little too sweet. The glaze was a real hit, though — tangy and very lemon-y.

 

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Flaky scones from All Things Pastry — R’s favorite

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Starbucks-imitation (cream-only) scones from Chowhound — everyone else’s favorite

R preferred Ana’s flaky scones. I made them last week with dried blueberries and lemon zest; this week R suggested something with honey and cinnamon. Keeping Ana’s recipe as a base, I thought about making a honey-rosemary scone (Cinnamon?! So normal!) and read this and this, about substituting honey for sugar (count it as a liquid, reduce oven temperature, use 75% of sugar). I also read this about honey glazes on scones (honey + powdered sugar + milk/water).

Then. I. Saw. This. Cinnamon-honey cubes?!

Anyway, I ended up settling on making TWO types of rosemary-honey-orange scones last week and had a taste off. The clear winner was an adaptation of Thomas Bouchon’s cinnamon-honey scones (I changed the flavor profile and cut a few corners to make the recipe less fussy. While I haven’t made the original, these were tender, full of flavor, and baked up beautifully).

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Rosemary honey and orange pecan scones

Two nights before 

Whisk together:

30 g flour

30 g sugar

5 g finely chopped fresh rosemary

5 g orange zest

With your fingers, rub in 30 g cold butter.

Stir in 20-30 g honey into a smooth paste. Flatten into a 4-inch square on plastic wrap. Freeze overnight.

The night before

Whisk together:

460 g flour, sifted

2.5 tsp baking powder (sifted!)

1/2 tsp baking soda

91 g sugar

In a mixer with the paddle attachment, beat in:

8 oz cold butter, cut into small pieces

and beat for 3 minutes. The directions say to to do this next step with the mixer running, but I’m not that coordinated, so I stopped it and poured in

135 g heavy cream and

135 g sour cream

then beat for 30-45 seconds, scraping down the sides once in the middle. Then I added 1/4 cup toasted, chopped pecans and pulsed the mixer for 30 more seconds.

Take the rosemary-orange honey-butter from the freezer and cut into small squares. Fold into the dough by hand to avoid smearing/breaking them apart.

Press the dough into a 7×10 rectangle on a piece of plastic wrap; cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

After 2 hours, cut the dough into 12 squares. Place on a silicone-lined baking sheet, 1″ apart, and freeze for 2+ hours.

The day of

Bake from frozen for 28-30 minutes at 350°.

Fresh from the oven, brush with a 2:1 combination of browned butter and honey (I used 40 g butter to 20 g honey).

 

key lime pie bars & stress & shabbat

It was a stressful week. It is becoming more and more clear that Rilke’s territorial- and dog-aggression are well beyond anything that I know how to fix and I’ve felt at the end of my rope. It’s a sinking feeling of failure that seeped into the whole of the week, from waking to sleeping.

On Thursday, I went to the dispensary and got her CBD oil drops to help with her anxiety/fear in the apartment (which I’m pretty sure is what leads her to lunge/bark at the front door when my neighbors pass by.

And then I came home and baked. I’ve never made key lime pie before, and it’s R’s favorite, so I decided to make these key lime pie bars for our Shabbat dinner Friday night. It was therapeutic — to give all my attention over to the tiny limes (too small for my citrus press), to watch the magic of it setting in the oven, to have to be patient and wait to taste it in the morning.

Crust:

12 large graham cracker rectangles, finely crushed

3 T ground pecans

1/4 tsp cinnamon

1/3 cup sugar

7 T butter, melted

Mix together and press into an 8×8 pan lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes. Leave the oven on.

Filling:

3 egg yolks

14 oz sweetened condensed milk

1 lb key limes, juiced + 2 regular limes (a little over 1/2 cup)

4 tsp lime zest

Beat the egg yolks for 3-4 minutes. Pour in sweetened condensed milk and beat for 2-3 minutes more. Pour in lime juice and zest and beat for 2 minutes more, or until slightly thickened.

Pour over the crust and bake for 14 minutes, rotating once half-way through.

 

R and I had a lovely Shabbat dinner together — unhurried, full of conversation and laughter.

And this morning, Rilke and I ran through the woods, and I researched train & board facilities. It made me feel hopeful to read reviews of programs that talked about aggressive dogs (whose owners had been told the dogs would need to be euthanized) who were able to find peace and happy relationships. So even though I feel incredibly poor right now, it’s time to start saving so Rilke can get the training she needs to not be crazy.

currently reading: Educated by Tara Westover

I finished reading Educated over the weekend (a three-day reading binge that seriously slowed down my grading). I had read the excerpt published in Time and it ticked a few “I would really like that” boxes. A lot of the headlines about the book bill it as her “escape from a Mormon family;” I think a more true log-line would describe it as a difficult journey from a rural, survivalist family to a sense of self in the wider world.

It’s extraordinary — on multiple levels. The writing is clear and thoughtful; she balances action and reflection in a way that brings the reader with her in her emotional and educational transformation. There’s a thing that sometimes happens in memoirs — where there is a chasm between the reader and the speaker, a kind of interiority that does not translate. Educated bridges this chasm. Westover doesn’t overwhelm us with characters or metaphors or extended reflective monologues. She tells us a series of events from her childhood, braided with her growing awareness of self and world. Her stories are detailed, rich in setting and dialogue. (She says in this interview that this learned about narrative craft from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast; I can see how she mirrors the arc of a short story in each chapter.)

So the writing is good. But more than the writing, I was impressed with Westover’s refusal to allow any of her characters (i.e., family members) to be either black or white. Love exists alongside violence and neglect; belief follows sentences of profound doubt. Betrayal is recounted without blame or resentment. Religion is not demonized. It’s not comforting or easy, as several of the “fundamentalist-family-abuse-trap” stories I’ve read have been. Westover holds us in the ambiguity of being human in a difficult world. At its core, it is asking questions about how we define ourselves, about how we heal ourselves, about what we owe to our families.

And Educated is also one of the first memoirs I’ve read without a false sense of ending. There was no neat tying up, and yet at the end, the story felt finished.

All this to say — it’s a book well-worth picking up.

patterns of thought

This morning I am grading at a cafe near my house; it is warm and bright outside and I can see out the windows from my table. I’ve eaten 3 pastries, 2 egg sandwiches, and drunk 2 cups of coffee at this point; precarious piles of rubrics cover my table.

When I first sat down to grade, I felt very tender in the world, as though any semblance of stability and competence was just that — a semblance. It’s what happens when I’m stressed: catastrophe rears its head in all the corners at once. My mind becomes a manically stampeding anxiety-producer — R must be mad at me; I am a terrible dog owner; my parents are dying; my car engine is about to die; I’ll never be able to keep a clean home; my fitness goals are unattainable; I have disappointed all my dreams; I was never very good to begin with and this is just an affirmation.

It doesn’t matter that, really, the only thing stressful is the pile of podcasts and portfolios left to grade.

In less than two months, I’ll be 30. Of course this means I’ve been reflecting on what I’m going into my 30’s equipped with, on whether or not this vision of my life matches what I had hoped for, on what I want to change and what I want to keep.

In the moment of opening up my computer this morning to grade, and feeling very much like all I was capable of was crying, I did two things that Portia of even a few years ago would not have known how to do:

  1. I texted a friend about how I was feeling.
  2. I recognized that the stampeding anxieties were because of the grading stress; they were not based in reality.

Neither erases the anxieties, but they both help to ease my mind. My friend told me I could always go cry in my car if I needed to (practical advice). And told myself to “collect evidence” for the anxieties. Could I find “proof” in the words or deeds of others to support the reality the anxieties insisted was true? Of course I couldn’t.

I would not have known to do either of these things a few years ago. It is still a hard day, with a lot of real stress, but I am also happy that I am going into my 30’s better able to take care of myself without surrendering to the less productive (and less effective) things I did in my early 20’s.

lime bars & shabbat thoughts

Last night I made Gabrielle’s Lemon Squares from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Except I used lime instead of lemon, and bumped the juice up to 1/2 cup. But they still aren’t very lime-y — more generic citrus. Which I guess might have to do with the limes I used (plucked quickly from the not-so-fancy Safeway off 13, while so ravenously hungry I though I might actually collapse into a fountain of tears. Catastrophe-Hungry). I liked the crust, though — this morning when I ate two for breakfast (yes, I know, they aren’t really breakfast food), the crust had crisped nicely in the fridge.

It occurred to me that they would be good with basil. So I’ll add that to the “To Try” list.

But I’m also trying to figure out if they didn’t taste quite right because what I actually wanted was key lime pie. In which case, better limes would not solve the problem.

It’s been a week of a lot of second-guessing and feeling a little helpless in the face of Things That Must Be Done. I have been trying to practice self-forgiveness, but it’s hard to do when so much of the Not Quite Doing My Best (grading, walks and training) affects others so directly (students, Rilke). Grades are also due next week, which adds a kind of high pitched whine to the background of everything.

But.

It is also Shabbat today, and I think Shabbat is the real answer to all of the helplessness and second-guessing. Shabbat, or the Sabbath, runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday each weekend. Shabbat demands we acknowledge that we are more than our labor, more than the goals we meet or the things we do. The Torah commands that we both “remember” and “keep holy” the Sabbath by engaging in services on Friday evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday evening, as well as abstaining from labor — labor including, for Orthodox or Conservative Jews, lifting anything from the public to the private realms (or visa versa), handling money, or traveling.

Heschel names it as a “realm of time” rather than a realm of “things [which] when magnified are forgeries of happiness.” Instead, Shabbat offers us joy, holiness, and rest. Personally, it feels almost rebellious to take a day of rest — although to be fair, the days of rest I’ve taken have not fully adhered to the rules — I have read and done writing for fun (rather than school), taken my dog on long walks, and cooked. And Heschel is right — it creates a separate realm, a space I find it sometimes hard to leave. I want to learn how to perform the Havdalah, because I think closing Shabbat is probably necessary — a reading I did described the way the Chassids sit at their Seudah Shilshit late into the evening on Saturday, unwilling to let the bride-queen of Shabbat go. I understand that feeling. I have often found on Saturday evenings it is hard to return to the regular world; I feel resentful and out of place.

So this Saturday I will carve time for some silence, some time away from labor (and all the things that feel like labor).

i guess blog post titles are like mixtape titles and it’s ok if mine are longer than might be seemly

I am sitting at my desk on a Monday afternoon — for once not completely exhausted, even though the piles of grading are growing dangerously high.

And I think the reason I’m not exhausted, not so caught up in my own head that all I want to do is just lay down, has to do with the following things:

  1. There are only 8 weeks of school left!
  2. I just started listening to Alan Morinis’s Everyday Holiness on audiobook and it’s making me think, making me feel inspired, and in touch with my self-that-is-not-a-teacher
  3. R & I had a lovely, cozy Sunday that included reading in bed, roasted broccoli, and lots of coffee. I’m coming into the week emotionally full.
  4. Speaking of reading — I’m about half way through Americanah (I’m late to the party, I know). While I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts when I’m finished, for now I am just luxuriating in it. I like stories told slowly — an unhurried unfolding of lives over great emotional, temporal, and geographic distances.
  5. There are exciting writing projects on the horizon, including this blog!
  6. My Instagram updated and now I get the faux-iPhone X Portrait Mode options, so I can take happy selfies like this!

 

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So here is this blog’s manifesto-in-progress:

  • I believe in creation and not just reaction.
  • I believe in the power of reflection and its necessity to any kind of meaningful growth.
  • I believe reflection and creation happen through intentionality; they will not suddenly appear overnight if I do not work for them.
  • I believe I am happiest, am my best self, when all my selves are balanced (not only Teacher Portia, but Poet Portia, Runner Portia, Friend Portia, Jewish Portia, Daughter Portia, Baker Portia, etc). I believe that this balance must be monitored, maintained, and adjusted in response to the world around me and my changing needs.
  • I believe that community makes all of this easier.

So here’s to semi-regular posting of recipes, musings about God, reflections about writing and literature, and check-ins about the pulse of life here in the East Bay.