The Fig Tree and The Shuk

Two, almost three weeks now in Be’er Sheva and I feel much older. Soon I will have to do adult things like buy laundry detergent and toothpaste…permanent actions that mean I really am here and I really am staying. When I was planning for this trip, I planned for a lot of extraneous circumstances like two day hikes and outdoor camping trips. That’s all well and good, but I neglected the fact that my life would continue during these months!! The sun rises and sets here just like it does in Memphis and Yardley; the seasons change, the people yell, the cats scratch, politicians argue, beer gets brewed and drunk. You go to pubs, you study, and every Friday night you pray and thank God for all his infinite blessings. The weeks seem so long here, but time somehow moves more quickly. If i were lucky–not that I believe in luck, but if I were in a movie–I’d say I’m living someone else’s life. I look around and think about how I got here and I can’t but smile. And then I know that I really am here. I’m home! These are my pictures on the wall; these are my books; there are my clothes in the closet; there is my homework to be done; there is my tea to be drunk.
I went a few days ago to the Shuk, the daily outdoor market in the “Old City” by the central bust staion. Stalls and stalls overflowing with tomatoes and cucumbers, bursting at the seams with fresh fruit! So many varieites I had never seen before (cactus fruit, guava, passion fruit……). I stuck to what I knew: plums and fresh figs. FRESH FIGS! They’re everywhere here, even in the desert (truth: okay, it was planted a few centuries ago, but we hiked up sand dunes to the Mediteranean and picked fresh figs off the tree :)) I accidentally bought about four pounds of figs at the Shuk because I didn’t have the courage to ask for half a pound (I mean kilo. What?!) But that seems like a serendipitous problem. If I had more kitchenware I would make a fig and cheese tart with the excess, but alas, I’m back to basics in my apartment with gas stovetop and “travel” pot.
I also bought a mountain of pita bread (pronounced pee-tah, not pee-dah…glad I have Israeli friends to call me on my Americanism…), some cheese (I have no idea what kind because I still can’t read the signs…) and some fish–both fresh and smoked salmon.

SMOKED SALMON!!!!
So happy.
The Shuk also features huge sacks of grain (think Biblical times), nuts, dried fruits and spices. Next time I go I’m bringing someone with me to help translate 🙂
I’m so happy here. Happy in a very strange and liberating way. But I know I have so much responsibility ahead of me. My first weekend here, I was asked to think about and meditate on what I want out of my time here, and I wasn’t sure. I’m still not completely sure, but whatever it is, it is slowly coming into focus…
I’ve also been terrible about saying my prayers here. But I still find comfort in words:

“Since we have the same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak…for all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound in the glory of God.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward world is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.”

This country is overflowing with paradoxes. Paradoxes, or milk and honey…

The Great Cookie Project; an IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT!

(You can skip to the bottom if you are just curious what the IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT is 🙂
)

Something is amiss in the kitchen. Dishes, piled high in the sink, from two days ago–the dishwasher whirs and grumbles from its abuse– dried drips of chocolate, and, is that powdered sugar on the refrigerator door?


Powdered sugar on the refrigerator door. 


Yep. And on the freezer door, too. I’m pretty sure the next time I sneeze, I will expel powdered sugar. 


Let me explain. Every December, my Aunt Annie sends us all (that’s six plus families, all in various parts of the country) massive tins of cookies. Chocolate, butterscotch, raspberry, more chocolate, some peanut butter, and of course, more chocolate. They often arrive in a state of crumb like consistency, of which my sister and I justify our eating them–we’re not really eating ten cookies, just a lot of random cookie crumbs!!
But this year Annie, to my giddiness, I admit, enlisted me to help her out a bit. 

Well, three pounds of butter later, I’m not sure this was the best idea.


Don’t get me wrong; I love cookies, especially around Christmas time. But living at home has forced me for the past several months to get it through my head that I am not the only one in the house, and yes, four other people use the kitchen too!!! 


Oh, maaaan! Why can’t I just bake in PEACE? Well, because this isn’t my house. One can dream, though, and believe me I do. In my head I see a daintily decorated spacious kitchen with enough counter space to sleep on. I picture an art deco pale green on the walls, five wide gas burners, a white tea kettle nestled snugly in the background, and a large window inviting me outside into this:


But I digress.


In the midst of so much internal chaos, anxiously awaiting my final college letter, and writing pro and con lists (seriously), I spent the last seven days in a sugary haze, reteaching myself how to breathe.  But what to do when baking becomes the source of anxieties??? Oh, Lord, help me.


By the way, I think I have made a decision. The cookies are boxed up, my regretful impulsively bought boots are ready to be returned, and my pro and con lists, mathematical figures, packing lists, and to do lists are being scribbled down, scratched off, and continuously attended to. This is good. This is very, very good.


Happy Baking. 

-MEL
**At the risk of shamefully self-indulging, I have entered a short fiction contest sponsored by Seventeen magazine; the winner gets a cash prize that I am salivating over for my incredibly expensive yet ironically vital college education. So, please, PLEASE, head over to Figment.com and click the Heart button underneath my story. You don’t have to like it. Just pretend. God bless you!


Cake Therapy

Someday, when I open my own bakery in New York City and wear fur and am a very important person, I will call said bakery Cake Therapy.  I think the title is self-explanatory. I have also decided that I need more cake in my life. I mean, I need more cake baking in my life.

I also need more chocolate. Chocolate is good. Chocolate cake is even better.
My intention was to make red velvet cake, but I once heard that artificial dyes contribute to ADHD, and frankly, I can’t afford to take any chances.
So then I thought, Devil’s Food Cake, but I had my heart set on cream cheese frosting, and the thought of combining the two made me a bit sick to my stomach.
So, since I have very little experience making layer cakes, I thought I’d start simply: chocolate.
Somewhere during my project I remembered something: I think chocolate cake is weird. It’s not a brownie, so it’s not fudgey, and it’s not chocolate candy, so it’s not…chocolate! So maybe this chocolate cake didn’t turn out like a brownie, but the texture was nice and fluffy (thanks to separating the eggs and folding in the beaten whites at the last minute), didn’t crumble, and most importantly, held its frosting poi-fectly. I think the frosting is the best part, anyway. And that’s why I made two kinds:

Coffee Cream Frosting- This tastes like coffee ice cream in the best way possible. 
4 ounces softened cream cheese
2 ounces softened butter
One teaspoon vanilla extract
Two cups powdered sugar, divided
One third cup extra strong coffee, cooled

Beat together the butter and cream cheese. Add the vanilla and the powdered sugar, one half cup at a time. At one cup, add the coffee, beat, and add the rest of the sugar. Let sit in the refrigerator while your cakes cool. Frosts one eight inch cake.

 Peanut Butter Frosting- Super sweet, but nice for nutty people. 
2 ounces softened butter
1/8 cup crunchy peanut butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 teaspoons milk
One and a half cups powdered sugar

Cream together the butter and peanut butter; add the vanilla. Alternately add the powdered sugar, one half cup at a time, with the milk, and beat until smooth. Refrigerate for at least thirty minutes, then frost your eight inch cake.

The thing that is so great to me about baking, and all cooking for that matter, is that it is so easy to make someone smile and teach myself something new in the process. With that it mind, I am going to try to make more cakes, for which there are infinite possibilities and always reasons. At least something in my life makes sense.

Turkey Pot Pie

I am way beyond ready for the Holidays. Unfortunately, I don’t really consider Halloween a “Holiday,” possibly because I have no real childhood memories of Halloween.  Sure, there were lots of occasions of dressing up (but I never needed an excuse for that), lots of apple bobbings and pumpkin carvings and collecting leaves, but nothing really rings a bell in terms of parading from house to house, trying to hit up strangers for free food. Oh well, I still say my childhood could kick your childhood’s butt.

Anyway, I love the idea of Halloween only because it means that we are one step closer to Thanksgiving, which rings hundreds of bells, but that is another post for another day. What I wanted to share today, you could easily make with your Turkey Day leftovers, as I did last week—it turned into World Series food. Hey, it works.

Incredibly Easy and Delicious Turkey Pot Pie
Makes enough for six to eight people with a nice green salad on the side


Like I said, I really made this from whatever vegetable and meat leftovers I had in the fridge; feel free to substitute virtually anything–starchy vegetables and gamey meats work especially well, here.

Two recipes savory pie crust (in dough form, not a shell)
One cup turkey meat, combination light and dark, cooked and diced
One half cup green beans, diced
One cup cooked carrots, chopped*
One cup cooked winter squash (I used asian, but butternut or acorn would do well), diced*
One third cup red onion, finely diced
Two large cloves garlic, minced
One tablespoon arrowroot powder, or cornstarch
Two tablespoons butter
One cup leftover gravy and/or chicken stock
One third cup sherry
Salt and pepper

*Since these were leftover veggies, they already had their own seasoning pallets, which added to the flavor of the final dish. If you use raw veggies, season with salt, pepper, and some nutmeg/cinnamon and thyme. Also increase the stove cooking time to let them soften before baking in the oven.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Using your largest cast iron or other oven-proof skillet, melt one tablespoon of the butter over medium heat, then add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is translucent and the garlic is fragrant. Move to the side of the pan and melt the remaining butter, adding the arrowroot or cornstarch and whisking to make a paste–make sure this does not burn!
While still whisking, add the gravy and/or chicken stock and continue whisking until all bits are incorporated and thickened. Add the sherry and bring up to a bubble.
Add the turkey and vegetables, stirring to coat, and add a bit more chicken stock and sherry if the mixture seems dry. Season with salt and pepper (and add any of the above seasonings if you’d like) to taste, then remove from heat.
Roll out the pie doughs until they are in the shape of a disc large enough to cover the circumference of your skillet. Place the dough on top, securing around the edges. Poke a few holes in the center of the dough to allow the steam to escape, then place in the oven and bake for thirty minutes, or until the crust is golden brown and your home smells like a warm, lazy Sunday.