Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bath Buns

I made Bath Buns from Jane Grigson's Observer Guide to British Cookery--a recipe I have been wanting to make for more than twenty years. Why did it take me so long? I don't have an answer for that. Maybe because it's a yeast dough and I don't usually make yeast doughs, and because the measurements are by weight, and I only recently bought a kitchen scale, and also because crushing the sugar lumps seemed like a lot of work. Whatever the reason, I found it highly satisfying to finally make them, and to remember my trip to Bath.
I explained my tenuous connection to Jane Grigson in an earlier post. This particular recipe leaped out at me because when I lived in England for about five months in 1983, I made a pilgrimage by myself to Bath, mostly because of my love of Jane Austen. I photographed her home, saw the Roman baths, went to the Pump Room and heard a concert, and ate a Bath Bun. This was in the summer before my junior year of college, when I was staying in Glastonbury for about a month with a theater group. We performed an original miracle play written by one of my college professors, and I was the dancing angel.

I'm the one in the white dress at lower left. While we toured our little play around to churches in the area, I stayed with a family who were friends of my professor's, and who were acting in the play. It was a strange time for me. I loved Somerset, and I loved the other actors and the family I stayed with, but I didn't have any friends my own age. I spent a lot of time by myself when we weren't performing, taking day trips to places like Avebury and Bath and wandering in the countryside around Glastonbury. I wasn't used to traveling alone, but I got better at it.
I can't remember what the Bath Bun I ate in 1983 tasted like or whether what I made resembled it at all, but Jane claims this recipe is the one served in the Pump Room. She says "Cobb's the bakers in Bath, founded by James Cobb in 1866, have been making Bath buns from a recipe adapted from an original version of 1679 for over a hundred years." Here's the recipe, adapted a bit and with my parenthetical asides.

Cobb's Bath Buns

1-1/2 oz fresh yeast (I used 3 packages dried yeast)
1-1/2 oz. granulated sugar (I used 3 Tbsp.)
1/2 pt. water
15 oz. eggs (I used 7)
5 oz. strong white bread flour

30 oz. strong white bread flour
12 oz. softened butter (I used 2 sticks salted, 1 stick unsalted)
3 oz. granulated sugar (1/3 cup)
12 oz. broken up sugar lumps (I used 8 oz. and it was plenty sweet enough; see note below about sugar lumps)
pinch mixed spice (nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves are nice)
pinch salt
few drops lemon juice

Bun wash: Mix together
2 oz. sugar
5 Tbsp. water

more crushed sugar lumps

To make the ferment, mix the yeast and sugar in a large warmed mixing bowl and whisk in the water, which should be warmed to blood heat. Leave in a warm place to froth up--about ten minutes.

Beat in the eggs and flour. Tie in a plastic carrier (cover with plastic wrap) and leave in a warm place to rise for about an hour.
Mix in the dough ingredients, kneading well together. (I tried to knead it on my silicone mat and had to add about 1/2 cup of additional flour to prevent it from sticking. Later I found a blog that addressed this problem in a recipe for Bath Buns by Elizabeth David; see the recommended method for kneading it in the bowl.) Put it back in the carrier and leave for another hour at least, or until the dough has doubled. This can take a good deal longer than an hour with a rich dough like this one, especially in a family kitchen which is not likely to be as warm as a bakery. (Mine took 2-1/2 hours.)
Knock back the dough and shape it into pieces the size of a small Cox's orange pippin. (This cracks me up--it's a small British apple variety. I divided the dough into 24 more or less equal pieces.) Place them on greased baking sheets. Cover again with plastic and leave to prove--about 30 minutes.

Preheat the over to gas 7, or 220 degrees C (425 degrees F). Bake the buns for about 20 minutes, swopping the trays round just after half time. Remove and brush the tops with bun wash, and sprinkle them with the crushed sugar lumps.

About the sugar lumps: I put sugar cubes in a plastic zip lock bag and crushed them with a rolling pin. It was hard to get them an even size. Much of the sugar crumbled into grains, and some lumps stayed as large as peas. My goal was to get them all about the size of small lentils. Maybe other lump sugar would be easier to work with. The idea is to get lumps of sugar into the dough so you occasionally crunch a lump of sugar. I ended up with so few workable lumps I saved them for the topping.
What my family thought:
"Bath buns? What does that mean? Do you eat them in the bath tub?" (My husband) "Mmmmm. Yum." (My sons) "I think you should re-brand them, since no one here knows what 'Bath' is. How about sugar crunch buns?" (My husband.) "Mmmmmm. Yum." (My sons.)
What I thought:
The sugar-lump-crushing difficulties were enough to discourage me from making them again, unless I could find sugar lumps already that size. Also you can see in the photo of Cobb's Bath Buns they have currants but Jane's recipe did not call for them. Cobb's buns are more charming than mine. But my Bath Buns were rich, buttery, and delicious for breakfast warmed, split, and spread with butter.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


My sons have taken over decorating the tree, discussing each ornament and its history as they pull it out from the box.
Sometimes I am so busy getting ready for Christmas and getting everyone else presents I forget to check in to make sure my kids are thinking about giving, too. If they are not giving presents, then they're missing out on the best part of Christmas. I know it's a cliche, but I genuinely feel it's more fun to give presents than to get them. When they stopped believing in Santa Claus, I started talking about the spirit of Santa--the spirit of giving--and how that's what I believe in. My husband sniggered a bit, and my kids rolled their eyes, but I think they got it.

My older son gave me a madeleine pan and a great card.

My younger son gave me a Juncus inflexus 'Afro', also known as a Blue Medusa Rush (you can see why it's called this).
They had a lot of fun making silly cards for each other. I think what's meaningful to them about Christmas is being together with our family as we always are at Stinson Beach for a few days, and then having our own Christmas, just the four of us, at home.
This Christmas we braved the traffic and drove back out to Stinson Beach for Christmas dinner. My husband, his brother, and I cooked dinner. The menu was Oysters with Mignonette, Roast Leg of Lamb with Pomegranate Molasses Glaze, Roasted Potatoes and Onions, Mixed Green Salad with Citrus Dressing, and homemade Apple Galette. We drank Roederer Blanc De Noirs sparking wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Ridge Zinfandel.
My cousin and her husband earned the Cleverest Christmas Card Award this year with their stamp. Guess which one is my cousin holding their daughter.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Birdwatching at Bolinas Lagoon

This weekend we were up at Stinson Beach with family, and I stole away quite a few times to peer at birds on Bolinas Lagoon with my binoculars. In the winter, Bolinas Lagoon is a major winter stopping place for hundreds of shorebirds and ducks, and it hosts lots of other bird species year-round. Over the many years that we've been staying at Stinson Beach during Christmas--I believe it's at least thirty years, although I'm not sure we know the exact year we starting coming--I've gradually become more and more interested in the birds we see. When I was a child, I remember the adults discussing dowitchers and avocets but I was too busy playing on the beach to take a look at them. If I remember any birds from that time, it is the sanderlings--the little plump gray ones that run away from the waves, then turn around and follow them as the waves retreat, back and forth all day until a dog or a person startles them and they rise up all at once in a silvery flock that turns white when they bank and then gray again when swerve the other way.
Suddenly the birds became more interesting to me when my own kids got interested in birds. Their fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Rich, taught them about birds and took them birdwatching. When they began pointing out birds all around us, I began reading bird books so could keep up. Now they're no longer so captivated by birds--although they can effortlessly identify more birds than I could at their age--but I'm hooked.
In the back of our bird book--"Birds of Northern California" by David Fix and Andy Bezener, the one Mr. Rich told us to buy--there's a list of species with little boxes by each one so you can check off the ones you've seen. Avid birders keep a life list of all the bird species they've seen, and are thrilled when they can add one to the list. I'm not so much of a birding fanatic to keep a life list, although I know which ones in the bird book I've never seen. Or, I should say never identified, because there are many common birds that I've never recognized or noticed, but I'm pretty sure they have crossed my vision before.

Ducks are a good example. In the course of my life I've seen many ponds and lakes and estuaries filled with ducks, but it was only a few years ago that I really began to identify them, beyond the Mallard. One winter I saw the American Widgeon on Bolinas Lagoon. Now I see it at Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, and dozens of them--and a few Eurasian Widgeons, too--every year at Bolinas Lagoon. This weekend I saw the Northern Pintail Duck, another duck I had probably seen before, but this weekend, I really saw it. It swam into my binoculars, looking as if it had been painted, with a chocolate head and a white line edged with black starting on the back of the head and curving around to merge with its long white neck. I also saw Scaups (whether they were Greater or Lesser I have no idea), swimming with their heads underwater along the edge of the muddy shore of the estuary. Two more species to add to my...
Okay, I don't have a life list. But I did make a Winter Solstice Weekend at Stinson Beach and Bolinas Lagoon Bird List of all the species I saw. Here it is:
American Avocet
Canada Goose
American Widgeon
Eurasian Widgeon
Northern Pintail
Common Goldeneye
Great Eagret
Great Blue Heron
Western Grebe
Marbled Godwit
Long-Billed Curlew
Surf Scoter
Belted Kingfisher
Plover--maybe Black-Bellied?

Do I look like one of those Audubon birdwatching geeks?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cult of the Meyer Lemon

Today I made Meyer lemon ice cream to bring out to the beach house to serve to my mother-in-law, who loves lemon. The recipe is from "Chez Panisse Desserts" by Lindsey Shere, who is largely responsible for bringing the Meyer lemon into California cuisine. Once Meyer lemons only grew in backyards, like my granny's up the street from us in Berkeley. I remember that my mom didn't really like them when we got a bag from my granny because they weren't tart enough. If I scratch them with my fingernail, they have a perfumey smell that reminds me of lemon blossoms. Their juice is sweeter than regular (Eureka) lemons; they may be a hybrid of lemons and mandarins although the origin is unknown. Now Meyer lemons are prized for their special flavor and perfume and rarity, since they are still barely grown commercially. They thrive in the Bay Area, even in San Francisco, even in our very own yard!

The history of this particular dwarf Meyer lemon tree is a testament to my husband's green thumb and the hardiness of plants. At the time we left our house to live abroad seven years ago, it was in a pot, not exactly thriving but surviving. We had lost two earlier trees to ants, despite smearing gobs of Tanglefoot around the trunk. The ants farm the aphids for the sweet juice they excrete and the sweet juice in turn develops a sooty mold, which kills the tree. When we returned to our home five years ago, the tree was a dead stick. I said, "Throw it out." My husband said, "Wait and see." The following winter it sprouted a healthy-looking branch and leaves. We planted it in two different places in the backyard, where it continued to revive itself and gather strength. Year before last it actually produced two lemons that ripened. We still were not satisfied with its location, however. We conferred and agreed that it really should go in the warm south-facing corner in the front of our house, where we recently removed a gnarly old lavender bush. We moved it again, and suddenly it burst forth with blossoms, then set tiny green fruit, all of which ripened and grew fat. Our tree was dripping with lemons. This year it also has a large crop, although not quite as big as last year. I picked the three largest lemons for this recipe.

Meyer Lemon Ice Cream (from "Chez Panisse Desserts" by Lindsey Remolif Shere)
Makes 1-2/3 quarts.
3 Meyer lemons, about 3/4 pound
1 cup sugar
1 cup half and half
6 egg yolks
3 cups whipping cream
Vanilla extract to taste
Peel one lemon very thin with a vegetable peeler, taking care not to cut into the pith. Put the peel in a non-corroding saucepan with the sugar and the half and half. Heat the mixture to just under boiling, remove from heat, and let steep for ten minutes.

Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl until just mixed, and pour in some of the hot half and half mixture, stirring constantly. Pour it back into the pan and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Pour through a strainer into the bowl.

Add the finely grated peel of two lemons.

Let stand in the mixture for ten minutes and then add the cream. Juice the lemons, strain the juice, and add 9 tablespoons to the cream mixture. Taste and add more juice if you want more tartness, and a few drops of vanilla. Chill thoroughly. Freeze according to instructions with your ice cream maker.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cinnamon Stars

Early in our marriage, or maybe in the period when we lived together before we married, I really wowed my husband by making him cinnamon stars. His mom had always bought these German Christmas cookies (Zimtsterne) from a certain bakery and his family savored them each Christmas. When I found the recipe in Joy of Cooking, labored with the sticky dough, and produced sweet woggily stars, he was in heaven. Judging from the happy sounds he made as he ate them, it was almost as good as Proust's madeleine.

Each time I made them, they got a bit easier. I hadn't made them for a few years, but I made them again this week. To tell the truth, they seemed pretty easy this time--at least, no more difficult than any other cookie you have to roll out, cut, and frost. I guess I've just finally gotten the knack. I remember reading somewhere that you have to make a recipe ten times before you really know how to make it.

Don't mess with any other cinnamon star recipes with butter or other ingredients in them. These are the one! The cookie part is tender and nutty; the meringue topping has a slight crunch and then melts on your tongue.

Cinnamon Stars (from Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
2 cups of confectioners' sugar.
Whip until stiff but not dry:
5 egg whites
1/8 tsp. salt
Add the sugar gradually. Whip these ingredients well. Add:
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. grated lemon rind
Whip constantly. Reserve 1/3 of the mixture. Fold into the remainder:
1 lb. ground unblanched almonds
Dust a board lightly with confectioners' sugar. Pat the dough to the thickness of 1/3 inch. It is too delicate to roll. If it tends to stick, dust your palms lightly with confectioners' sugar. Cut the cookies with a star cookie cutter. Glaze the tops with the reserved mixture. Bake on a greased sheet for about 20 minutes. You can see from the photo that I like to let them get a tiny bit colored to make sure the glaze is crunchy when cooled.

My note on storage: Like other meringues, these can become sticky if the weather is humid. I layer them between sheets of waxed paper in an airtight tin box. Sometimes they will get sticky anyway. If they get sticky, don't try to peel the waxed paper off them. Just wait another day and they will dry out.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

December Garden

My garden is waiting. I am waiting. We are all waiting for the winter solstice and the days to start getting longer again, imperceptibly. Actually the lack of perception is on my side; my garden knows exactly when the days start growing longer, and how much lighter it becomes each day. The plants in my garden perceive the quality of light, measure time and temperature, take a moisture reading, note the wind's strength, and constantly test the soil. They are much more patient than I am. They must be. They wait until it is the right time for them to "blossom pollen scatter seed swell dwindle and perish/come back next year crimson, purple/...(Philip Whalen).
Every day when I look at my garden it seems like nothing's happening, until I look closer. Then I see exotic pink blossoms on our grevillea bush--the new one that is healthy.
I see the buds on the cymbidium and the climbing aloe.

I see our Persian Lily growing thick green spears, preparing to send up a shower of blue stars.

Our Cape Honeysuckle is in mid-bloom.

No wonder the hummingbirds continue to defend it fiercely. Doesn't it seduce you, too? The hummingbirds also enjoy our blooming Mexican Sage in the front yard. The other day one stopped two feet from my windshield as I pulled into our driveway. I had either surprised it, or it was reminding me that it had already claimed that sage bush.
Our raised bed sits waiting, full of rich nursery soil. I am so impatient to fill it with winter greens, but I have to wait a bit longer. If I put them in now, they'll just rot.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Stern Grove Haiku

In a forest pool--
Floating leaves look like goldfish--
Trees grow upside down.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Beach Walk Haiku

I record their trace--
A dog, a runner, bare feet--
Wave erases all.

Note: Originally I posted the final word in this haiku as "it." But "it" just sounded like a bad note to me, clunking at the end. So a few days later I changed "it" to "all." Better...but I'm still a little unsatisfied. Anyone else have a suggestion?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Driftwood sculpture waves
at the traffic signal. It
blinks back

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Haiku for Sea Foam

Lined up like tall ships,
They sailed in on a high wave--
Clouds stalled on the sand.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Haiku for Willets and Marbled Godwits

We keep our feet wet
We stand where waves lick our toes
Where sand mirrors sky

It's a relief for me that NaBloPoMo is over. By the end I felt emptied out of all I wanted to say. But there were some days, and stretches of days, when I was looking forward to my next post, thinking of a string of posts on a theme, having fun planning out which photo to use. I thought about posting a lot more when I posted every day. Some of my posts were dull, but I did write more of them!

I'm thinking now about whether I want to narrow my focus. I'm kind of all over the place. There's a lot of different labels accumulating: pumpkins? worms? shopping? But then again, I like to cast my mind over many different topics. Probably I will just keep going as I have been, with three main themes: parenting, garden/nature, food. I'd like to post three or four times a week and see where that takes me.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Birds of Lloyd Lake

Winter in the Bay Area is a great time for bird-watching. There are many birds that winter here from more northern regions, and others that just plain stay here all the time, like this Great Blue Heron. I took this photo of a heron fishing in Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park a few weeks ago. He was so engrossed in his task, and used to people, that he ignored me.

Today I took an early morning bike ride and passed Lloyd Lake again (unfortunately no camera this time). There were California gulls, mallards, a pair of Muscovy ducks, a pair of Hooded Mergansers, and what might have been about ten Red Phalaropes. Or they might have been Bonaparte's gulls, a small, elegant seagull with a thinnish beak. Red Phalaropes are a bird that normally lives in the Arctic but migrates south along the west and east coasts and winters at sea in the Southern Hemisphere (says my bird book). They rarely come ashore except after a storm, to rest. The confusing thing about them is that they're not red, at least at the time of year when there's the slightest chance that they would be dropping by to our area. They're only red when they are breeding, up on the arctic tundra. When they're migrating they are greyish white, with similar markings as a gull, but with a thinner bill and what my bird book calls "a phalarope mark," a dark patch from eye to ear. I don't remember if these had the eyepatch or not.

Once when I was walking at Lake Merced I saw a birder with a scope. I asked him what he was looking at, and he said excitedly, "There's a Red Phalarope out there. Want to take a look?" I peered through the scope and saw a bunch of grayish birds floating around.
"Which one's the Red Phalarope?" I asked.
He launched into a detailed description that did not include the word red. I had to ask, "It's not red?
He laughed and told me that was just its name.
I have always looked for Red Phalaropes but never seen them. Like today at Lloyd Lake--I wanted to believe I had stumbled upon a flock, but Lloyd Lake is barely more than a pond, and it hasn't stormed for weeks. It's more likely that they were Bonaparte's gulls. Then again, they might have been Red Phalaropes. Without my bird book along, or a camera, then identifying them becomes an exercise in remembering--or forgetting, as today.

The bird I saw at Lloyd Lake today that made me laugh was a Great Egret in a tree. It was a very large egret and a small, willow-like tree. The branch it was on was so low, I could have touched it. The egret looked like it was going to topple out of the tree at any moment.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hummingbird Watch

This Anna's Hummingbird was photographed in the Presidio by an anonymous National Park Service staff member. I haven't been able to capture my Anna's Hummingbirds in a photo--except for the one in this post--because they are wary and swift. But I get so much amusement from them!

I have determined that they are Anna's because they seem to be overwintering in our backyard, and that's the only local species that does. I have once or twice caught a glimpse of red at their throats, but mostly they look like the picture above. In the morning, when I drive my son to school at 7:20, one sits on the wire above my car and buzzes and clicks at me. When I return, he does the same. Later, when I go out in the backyard, all is quiet for a few minutes. Then he--I'm assuming it's the male--arrives within five minutes in the eucalyptus tree and starts the buzzing and clicking again. He does the same to my husband when he's working in the garden. Is all the noise directed at me, or is he warning his mate that we're around and to be careful? I never knew hummingbirds could make so much noise.

Earlier this week we were sitting on the deck with our tea since it has been so mild. Our hummingbird kept darting out from the eucalyptus tree to buzz at us, and then darting back in. Or maybe he was just checking to see what we were doing.

Yesterday I was walking up our street, looking at a fat gray bird in our eucalpytus tree in the backyard. I stopped to try to figure out what it was. Suddenly a tiny needle-nosed gremlin--our hummingbird--rose up menacingly right above the intruder. The bird gave a frightened squawk and flew away. Once it flew I could see from its black and white wing feathers that it was a mockingbird, also a frequent neighborhood visitor, maybe even the one that built a nest in our neighbor's tree one year. I guess he won't be building a nest in our eucalyptus tree, at least not when the hummingbird is around.

I'm wondering if the pair--there are definitely two--are planning to build a nest and are establishing their territory. According to my bird book, they could mate as early as mid-December here. I'd love to see them build a nest although I'm sure they'd never build it anywhere I could see it. They're too city-smart for that.

Here's my dilemma: We desperately need to trim the ivy in our backyard. It's forming berries, which will be ripe in a month or so, and then we could have a repeat of the War of the Robins and Starlings in our backyard. It was ugly last year; they fought over the berries, dive-bombing each other and slamming into our windows and leaving battlestains (droppings) all over our deck. So the berries have to go, but the gigantic flowering cape honeysuckle bush with bright orange flowers that the hummingbirds love is all entwined and entangled in the ivy. It needs a trim, too, frankly. Can I find a sensitive ivy trimmer who can shear off the ivy berries but leave a few blossoms for the hummingbirds so they stick around? To be continued...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Revisiting Jane Grigson

I found a persimmon haiku in Jane Grigson's Fruit Book, a literary cookbook that has been reissued this year. I was browsing through the persimmon section, reading what Jane says, since we still have a giant bowl full of them--even though I've given bags away to three of my friends. Jane did extensive research into the origins of different fruits and their varieties, and has many obscure stories about fruits in this book, as well as recipes, some contemporary, some centuries old. But after all, she recommends just eating them fresh, which I will continue to do. I happen to like the cover art for my edition (the 1982 one) of this cookbook, too, so I had fun playing around with my freshly purchased Comice pears and Pink Lady apples.
This haiku is by Issa:

Wild persimmons
The mother eating
The bitter part.

Jane Grigson has some other wonderful cookbooks besides this one: The Vegetable Book, Good Things, English Food, and The Observer Guide to British Cookery, of which I have a signed copy. I was working in London in 1983 as an au pair for a family. The mother worked at the Observer magazine, and she was doing a big food series with Jane. The articles were extracted from the British Cookery book, and the mother I was working for gave me a signed copy. I never met Jane--and it's too late now because she died in 1990--but I liked hearing stories about her. Jane had a fondness for photos of cooked dishes, which my employer always tussled with Jane about. As a photo editor, she looked for good photos. She liked the photos of people in the landscape, harvesting Irish sea urchins in Kenmare, or the butchers in their shop in Darlington, rather than the photos of a brown pot of brown stew. I have to say she was right; I love looking at the photos in British Cookery. The book is a journey through different parts of England, focusing on local purveyors, seafood harvesters, farmers, and traditional recipes. I have to say I haven't delved into the recipes much. "Jugged Hare with Forcemeat Balls" and "Eel Pie" never really inspired me, and British cookery doesn't exactly have a stellar reputation. But I took a look through it again and found some wonderful, unusual recipes. I am making a vow to explore some of them this holiday season.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Last night I saw Verdi's Macbeth, the first of his Shakespeare operas, at the S.F. Opera. The highlight was Thomas Hampson in the title role, looking almost gaunt but sublimely sexy and haunted and, at the end, ruined. After hearing the final aria, in which Macbeth recognizes that he will not be remembered with compassion, the words that came to mind were "supreme mastery of his instrument." Hampson's voice is rich, warm, and intelligent, expressing a huge range of emotion and yet always remaining inside the drama and the music.

The picture above, of a 19th-century painting by Théodore Chassériau of Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches on the heath, has nothing to do with the production. The witches in the opera, who number many more than three and form the chorus, were all dressed in red and pink contemporary fashions, all with red or reddish hair, and were occupied with sterotypical girly things while singing: one was painting her nails, one was hula-hooping, one carried a feather duster and wore her hair in curlers, etc. They were brilliant, but it got weirder. When we first see Lady Macbeth, she is chained by the waist to the top of a large cube, like a rabid dog. Duncan, the murdered king, wore a golden mask and was wrapped in a gold lame mummy bandages, with the body of a child. He looked like some kind of alien. The vision of Banquo's sons were children in white angel dresses with golden old-fashioned school satchels strapped on the their backs (this is a Swiss production so is that what Swiss schoolchildren still wear?), waving green branches.

Not to be too gory, but I wanted red blood when Macbeth emerged from murdering Duncan, but instead he was smeared with green slime. So was Duncan. Maybe he really was an alien? I have to work too hard to figure that one out. The cube was put to many clever uses, always emphasizing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's alienation from the others in their world, and the claustrophobia of their mental state, especially hers.

With a story as well known as Macbeth, I suppose there is a strong temptation to create a provocative production just to give people something to talk about and force us to see things in a new way. But although I like many elements of it, the production distracted me from the opera, which itself is an adaption of the original play. I would have liked a little more neutrality, to reflect on the transformation of the play into an opera.

If you'd like to catch a glimpse (sorry, no green slime in the preview), here's the SF Opera preview clip. I'm off to reread Shakespeare's original.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

On the Land

We went to visit our friends on their farm in the Central Valley. Their persimmon tree was dripping with fruit, and we brought home a big grocery sack of them, as well as one of walnuts that fell off their trees. Everything is on a larger scale up there than in the city. While we were getting our house remodeled, they built a barn that could fit two of our houses. This summer, when we were making our raised bed in the backyard, they had a corral built. You can see far on their land, sometimes even to the Sierra Nevada, on clear winter days.
We walked along their land and down by the creek. The two dogs accompanied us, and the two cats. That's right, the two cats. I never knew cats liked to take a walk with humans, but these do. My friend said, "And if we let the goats out of the corral, they'd walk with us, too!"

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving Menu

Here's our Thanksgiving table, set for ten. If you look closely, you can see the Swedish flag behind the candle, representing my Grandma Alice. You can't see the front of the lovely placecards my niece made for everyone, with names written in 2nd-grade cursive and an icon representing each person's interests (for me, a pie; for my husband, a bicycle; for my sons, a trumpet and a clarinet). Here's what we ate:
Smoked salmon and capers canapes (made by my mom), assorted cheese and crackers
Roast Turkey
Cranberry-Pear Marmelade
Green Salad with Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette
(made by me)
Mashed Potatoes
Herbed Cornbread Stuffing
Green Peas
Dinner Rolls
(made by my sister)
Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream
(made by my mom)

The wines:
Chandon California Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine
2005 Edna Valley Chardonnay "Paragon"
1996 Gevrey-Chambertin "Les Evocelles" (a French burgundy, selected by my step-father)

The music:
Vivaldi flute concertos, Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet

What did you eat?

Thursday, November 22, 2007


I want to thank all the writers and fellow bloggers who have inspired and encouraged me in writing my own blog, which is now more than six months old. (Links to these writers’ blogs are in the Places I Like to Visit at right.) I didn’t think I would get this far.
Thank you, Susan of ReadingWritingLiving, who gave me the assignment to write a blog (an imaginary one!) and taught me that a post can be as long or short or silly or serious as you make it. Thank you writers’ group friends, who continue to spark new ideas and, most important, read my blog and comment on it. Thank you cloudscome at a wrung sponge; discovering your haiku and photographs was a revelation to me about what a blog could be. Thanks Muffin Top for the great recipes and beautiful step-by-step photos of the process. You made me realize that, like cooking, sometimes I enjoy the process of creating my blog posts as much as (or even more than) the eventual result. Thank you to all my friends and family who have read my blog and told me what they liked. And thank you to all the blogs I have happened upon by chance that delighted me, and made me think or laugh or both.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Boy and the Bus

(Note on the photo: This is one of Muni's new hybrid buses. Love the sunflowers!)
This weekend, my younger son was at a soccer end-of-season pizza party at a friend's house. I couldn't pick him up because my husband and I were couch shopping. So I told him he could walk home. It's about a mile from our house, on a route he's used to because it's how we drive between our home and his school. He had his phone, so I felt he would be okay.
When we got home, we asked him how the walk home was.
"Actually, I took the bus," he said.
"Did you have money?" I asked, surprised.
"Yes. I made sure I had bus fare because I thought I might end up taking the bus," he said.
Not only that, he called his older brother to see if he was home, and older brother told him to call 311, a transit information line, to find out when the next bus was coming. He did that while he walked to the bus stop, found out there was one coming in 3 minutes, and hopped on when it came.
"Wow, I'm impressed," I told him.
"Why?" he said nonchalantly, but I could tell he was pleased.
"Just how you planned ahead and figured out where the bus stop was and found out when it was coming, and everything," I said.
"It's not that big a deal, Mom."
Actually, it is. I know some people a lot older than him who couldn't manage that. And he's only 12.
Also this week, my car wouldn't start when I went to pick him up at school. Luckily our carpool buddy's mom could pick up the boys and dropped him off at his music lesson, up the hill from us. The plan was, he would leave his saxophone at his teacher's house and walk home. Again, he decided to take the bus. Only this time 311 told him the next bus wasn't for 25 minutes, so he decided to walk home. Just as he was walking past the bus stop, a bus pulled up, so he got on. But it turned out it was going the opposite direction, so he had to get off again and walk anyway. He laughed about his adventure, when he made it home rosy-cheeked from the walk.
I remember when he was in sixth grade, he was afraid to take the bus by himself. Now it's an excursion of independence for him to take the bus alone. I just hope he doesn't have any bad adventures that spoil his new enjoyment of soloing on public transportation.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Walk on the Beach

Surf Scoters
Photo by Mike Yip

I took a walk today around 8:30 am on Ocean Beach. I was happy to see a lot of birds and no oil! I even saw two surf scoters, which I don't usually see there. I love their funny clown faces. Willets, marbled godwits, sanderlings, and of course seagulls were also enjoying the beach.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Pledge

My younger son and I have been having a battle of wills over him getting his hair cut. I don't insist that he have his hair a certain length. It can be long; it just occasionally needs to be trimmed so it looks like some attention has gone into his grooming. Actually both my husband and I have a problem with the longish hair because our son also neglects to comb it. So our two rules are as follows: he has to comb it before he goes to school, and he has to get it trimmed once in a while. But even these (to my mind) reasonable and minimal requirements get a lot of eye-rolling, sighing, door-slamming and stomping when they are enforced. This week I had had enough. I came up with a new plan: the no-advance-notice haircut.

Today when I picked him up at school, I had a croissant for him to eat. We drove to a nearby shopping street because I said, "we had an errand." He was happily eating his croissant. While I put money in the meter, he asked me where we were going. I pretended not to hear him. We walked down the block and I stopped in front of the only hair salon he will consent to frequent. He said, "Why are we stopping here?"
"Because you're getting your hair cut." He looked at me for a moment, shocked, and starting backing up.
"Yes," I answered. He stood there for a moment, then walked in. To his credit, he did not turn around and run down the street, which he could have done. But I could tell he was really mad. He avoided my eye and his eyes looked moist. I told him I would tell the haircutter to keep it long, and just trim it. He didn't respond. I began to regret my plan. He did not speak to me during the ten minutes we waited for his turn. Then he got into the chair with a stony face. The haircutter looked at me anxiously.
"He really likes his hair long," I explained. "He just wants a little trim, to keep it neat."
"A half inch?" she asked.
"Fine," I said.
She began cutting. I thought I would feel satisfied, but all I felt was that I had tricked him and that some part of him wouldn't trust me anymore. It was a rotten feeling. The haircutter was true to her word and only took 1/2 an inch off. You could hardly tell he had a haircut. He didn't speak to me the whole way back home in the car and went right downstairs when we got home.
Later this evening, I apologized to him about the no-advance-notice haircut.
"I can tell it made you upset. But I'm just so tired of all the drama every time I ask you to get a haircut," I said.
"You said we were just picking something up," he said, not looking up from his computer.
"Actually, I just said we had an errand." If he were able to express it, he could have accused me of lying by omission, but he didn't.
"Why couldn't you have waited at least until Thanksgiving break?" he grumped. "Then other people might have gotten their hair cut, too, and they wouldn't notice so much."
"I'll tell you what," I said. "I won't do that again. I pledge to give you advance notice when you need to get a haircut, but I need you to pledge that you will cooperate, and not give me a hard time when you need a haircut."
"Okay," he mumbled.
We left it at that. I felt like I got something, but like I lost something, too.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Happy Park

I did end up going to the reopening of Sunnyside Park on Saturday. It was filled with families! The best review of the new playground that I overheard came from a boy, perhaps around 5 years old, running down the hill. He stopped when he saw the new play equipment and said, "WOW!" I had an emotional moment looking around at all the kids playing and realizing that this was we had envisioned, more than ten years ago. WOW!
I reminisced with another mom who had been involved early on in the renovation process--whose son is now in middle school--and we realized that, had such a playground been here, our daily routine would have been to come to the park with our kids instead of driving to parks in nearby neighborhoods. Think of all the other parents in the neighborhood we would have met. Think of the greenhouse gases our cars wouldn't have emitted.

I came upon one of the old playground pieces--I guess the landscapers decided to repurpose it as "sculpture." This was the one I was always afraid my son would break his teeth on trying to climb.


This week my younger son said to me, "Ah, the weekend! What's great about the weekend is sleeping in, and you coming downstairs and saying, 'Boys, there's some pancakes for you.'"

Here's our family Swedish Pancakes recipe, from my Grandma Alice. Quantity is per person, so multiply it by 2 or 4 or however many pancake-eaters you're feeding.

1/2 cup buttermilk
1 egg
1 tsp. vegetable oil
1/3 cup flour
1 pinch baking soda
1 pinch salt

Mix together wet ingredients in one bowl, and dry ingredients in another. Combine and whisk together just until lumps are gone. Batter will be thin. Pour small pancakes no bigger than 3" in diameter.

My Grandma Alice served these with boysenberry syrup. I like them with honey or lingonberries; my kids like them with maple syrup.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

3,000 Calories A Day

Yesterday my older son called me after school to see if he could bring some friends over. Sure, I said. I like it that he and his friends want to hang out at our house. It was lucky that I had gone to the grocery store yesterday because this is what they ate (including breakfast the next day):
1/2 a loaf of bread
The remaining 1/4 of the ginger cake
1 dozen Krispy Kreme donuts
2-1/2 lb. beef roast
1 large green salad
1 lb. of pasta
2 pts. of ice cream
multiple pieces of fruit
4 bowls of cereal
1 gallon of milk
"I think they would have eaten more roast beef," my husband whispered to me at dinner.

In the boys' biology class, they did an exercise where they monitored their caloric intake and used some kind of projection formula to see what they would weigh in a certain number of years. According to the formula, E. (the tallest, and perhaps the slimmist, of the bunch) would weigh something like 300 pounds when was was 40.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sunnyside Park Reborn

Tomorrow is the ribbon-cutting ceremony for our newly renovated neighborhood park, Sunnyside Park. Things were a little tense around there when I stopped by this afternoon to check out the progress. An authoritative lady stepped toward me as I took a picture and said, "Uh, this is a construction site." Down by the entrance, one of the gardeners was fretting because it was four o'clock and she still had about 20 plants to get in the ground.
As I walked past the park, I ran into a woman from my yoga class pushing her toddler in a stroller. She was very excited about the opening of the new playground tomorrow. "We've been waiting so long for it!" she said.
"Well, I'll tell you something. My son is almost fifteen, and he was three when we started the process to get a new playground," I told her. "So I've been waiting a long time for this, too." This was one of those rare times when what I said actually caused someone's jaw to drop.
"My god," she said. "I can't believe the wheels turn so slowly."
I explained that the slow wheels were actually the neighbors, who couldn't agree on whether the park should be renovated. What kind of misanthropes wouldn't want to build a new children's playground? The issue was over where the new playground would be located, since the old one was not visible from the street and difficult to access in a wheelchair. (It also was furnished with the most deprived, toxic, dangerous play equipment you could imagine; even my own children spurned it.) The logical place for the new play area was on the neglected sloping grass field, too small for ball sports, with a sweeping view south to San Bruno Mountain. This was also the unofficial neighborhood dog owners' gathering spot, and a convenient place for their dogs to run off-leash.
For a brief time I served on a committee, the purpose of which was to try to create common ground between people who wanted to see the park renovated and people who wanted to maintain some kind of place for dogs to roam. When we started, I naively thought that it would be possible to come to some compromises, but I quickly learned the first lesson of San Francisco politics: stake out your position on the extreme, and kick and scream your way every inch toward the center. Our committe became polarized, dog feces were smeared on cars, and I quit in disgust soon afterward.
I think what saved the park and enabled the neighborhood to carve out some kind of plan--a prerequisite for city funding--were ADA requirements and one leading neighbor with both a child and a dog who could talk to both sides. The new playground just couldn't be built in the old spot without adequate wheelchair access, and regrading the slope was way out of range of the budget. And there were other neighbors, both dog- and childless, who realized park vandalism would decrease if there were more people using it, and property values would go up if the park was renovated and maintained.
Of course, there were the inevitable delays in appropriations to fund the project, but once our supervisor got behind it, it was clear it was going to happen. I'm just happy that now the families with young children have a gathering place in the neighborhood, and a safe and beautiful playground. Sure, there will still be problems from those dog owners who insist on running their dogs off-leash when children are around (and I know it's not all of them). But the park looks fantastic and I think it will create a greater sense of community in our neighborhood.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Our Bay

Today I was driving across the Bay Bridge when my eyes were caught by an eccentric fog formation around the westward side of Angel Island. I wish I had my camera to try to capture it. But I was driving, so how would I have taken a photo of it, anyway? The fog had collected in a frozen wave, pushed against the island and towering up and beginning to crest back over itself. But underneath was a clear layer of air, where the fog had evaporated, so the wave was hanging suspended over the water. Under it I could see the island shoreline.

The bay and its shoreline has been in my mind--the whole Bay Area's mind--as every morning we pick up the paper and find out how many more birds have been retrieved covered with oil, and how many hours the Coast Guard waited before acknowledging the size of the spill and launching the cleanup. The oil spill happened nearly a week ago. It makes me feel sick and sad. I have not been to the beach since it happened, but a friend went with her sons and said their feet got covered in sticky oil from walking around in their flip-flops. And this wasn't even one of the beaches that was closed. She could see little blobs of oil. There was no one doing cleanup there.

As I drove next to the shoreline, I could see one of the booms that is supposed to be keeping the oil away from the shoreline. And I saw mounds of white plastic bags that the cleanup workers have been using to bag up the tainted sand and oil. They seemed very small efforts in the immensity of the mess.

This photo was from a sailing trip during the Fleet Week air show last month with our generous friends who have a sailboat. You can see two Blue Angels in the center of the photo. It was a stunning day to be on the water, with the Blue Angels thundering overhead. I love to look at the bay from all angles but to be on it--surrounded by it--was a real treat. I like to think of the bay on that day, sparkling and choppy, instead of in its current state, sullied by black oil.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Book Club

Tonight I hosted book club and we ate half the ginger cake I baked. This is the second ginger cake I've made this week. First I made the gingerbread recipe from the Fanny Farmer Baking Book (by Marion Cunningham), and my son whipped cream to go with it, and it was very good, but I also love it with lemon sauce. So I made lemon sauce from Joy of Cooking (1964 edition) for the rest of it. I had to laugh when I opened the book to the dessert sauces pages because it was so spattered and smudged.
That lemon sauce recipe might be the one my mom made the most from that cookbook. Then there was so much lemon sauce left over after we finished the first ginger cake, and because I was hosting book club, I made a second ginger cake. The second one had fresh ginger in it. I can't decide which one I like best.

Here's the fresh ginger cake recipe. It's from Room For Dessert by David Lebovitz (one-time Chez Panisse pastry chef).

Fresh Ginger Cake

4 oz. fresh ginger
1 cup mild molasses
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil, preferably peanut
2-1/2 cups flour
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1 cup water
2 tsp. baking soda
2 eggs, room temperature

1. Position the oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9"x3" round cake pan or a 9-1/2" springform pan with a circle of parchment paper.
2. Peel, slice, and chop the ginger very fine with a knife (or use a grater).
3. Mix together the molasses, sugar, and oil. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper.
4. Bring the water to boil in a saucepan, stir in the baking soda, and then mix the hot water into the molasses mixture. Stir in the ginger.
5. Gradually whisk the dry ingredients into the batter. Add the eggs, and continue mixing until everything is thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for about 1 hour, until the top of the cake springs back lightly when pressed or a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. If the top of the cake browns too quickly before the cake is done, drape a piece of foil over it and continue baking.
6. Cool the cake for at least 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Remove the cake from the pan and peel off the parchment paper.

Dave recommends serving with a plum and raspberry compote, sliced and sugared peaches, or lemon curd mixed with a little whipped cream.

In between eating and talking about our children, we did talk about the book, Run, by Ann Patchett. Although most of us liked it, the general concensus was that it was not as satisfying as Bel Canto. Bel Canto had an emotional intensity and depth; the writing was lyrical, resonating long after I read it. (If you haven't read Run, you might want to stop here.)

Run has an intriguing and engrossing plot, but the characters were like cut-outs--not fully fleshed. Someone said, "It's like an abridged version of itself." Another person said they could see it as a movie, and there would be nothing left out of the movie that was in the book. I certainly could see the scenes vividly enough--the accident on the snowy street at night, Tennessee lying in the hospital bed, light flooding into Tip and Teddy's room--and suddenly the book did seem more like a screenplay. Actually, the snowy scenes were some of the most beautifully written passages. My favorite part was when Tennessee came back to talk to Tennessee. But did that really fit with the rest of the book? The person in the book that I would like to hear from when she grows up is Kenya. It seemed incredibly sad to me that the secret of her origins died with her second mother. Would she ever find out who she really was, and how important would that be to her?