Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What I've been...

...Reading: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. For me, this is the kind of book that the library was made for; an epistolatory novel with a dying preacher writing to his young son sounds terrible, no matter how lyrically written. Especially if it's lyrically written. But when I can request a book online, get an email when it's available and pick it up at my leisure, all for free, I'm more inclined to try out some stuff that I've heard good buzz about but wouldn't be excited about otherwise. (I know it's not a new book, but I've seen it mentioned a few places recently, so it's low-level buzz at this point.) And I'm so glad I did. It is lyrical, but it's also wry and warm and full of joy and humor. I'm really enjoying it. And I have nothing against lyricism, but tend to be annoyed at books that are more interested in style than story. IT SHOULD NOT BE AN EITHER/OR SITUATION.

Also, Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives by Helen O'Neill. I've been meaning to read this for a few years and have not been disappointed. She was born in (seriously) rural Australia, was a singer in a troupe that traveled around Asia in the 1920s, pretended to be a French couturier in London, married a member of the high society, turned out not to have been actually married to him but then made him move to Australia when he had an affair — and I'm not even a quarter of the way into the book. Eventually, she becomes a famous and successful wallpaper designer and is brutally murdered in her studio, but I still have a lot of ground to cover before I get to that point.

And I've been rereading Wolves at Our Door as I fall asleep at night. I really dig this kind of first-person account of field research. The people in this instance are documentary filmmakers who live with and film a captive wolf pack for six years to observe the way the pack interacts. It's pretty amazing stuff, plus I spent three months in that area six years ago and it's kind of fun to recognize the references ("I've totally done that drive from Ketchum to Stanley! It's so twisty and moutainous — of COURSE all the puppies were throwing up! I nearly threw up myself!") The writing itself is a little ... obviously written by people who are not writers, but the material is good enough that it doesn't really matter.

...Watching: I finished up the third season of The Wire and will get started on the fourth season sometime soon. I finally drank the Battlestar Galactica Kool-Aid and am maybe halfway through the second season of that. I'm feeling the need for something a little girlier to balance out all of the space and guns, but not sure yet what that's going to be.

...Failing at executing: Blood orange curd. It seemed like such a promising idea: take all that gorgeous ruby juice, make it into curd and use it to fill a layer cake. I had promised to bring a cake to a birthday party Saturday night and had gotten it in my head that I wanted do something dramatic and fancy with layers and filling and possibly pink frosting, the kind of cake capital-L Ladies would be served, a Lady Cake. I found a recipe for an orange layer cake that sounded tasty as well as pretty and thought a nice, tart filling would be a good balance. And when I found a really cheap bag of blood oranges at Trader Joe's, it seemed like everything was coming up Stephanie.

I juiced the oranges:
Got all of the supplies out, even thinking ahead and adding a lemon because I knew the oranges weren't tart enough to produce an ideal result:
I heated the juice and zest with the butter and sugar and added the beaten eggs, whisking merrily while listening to Marlene Dietrich. And as "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" played, I had one of those moments in which I was aware of being perfectly happy — all of my senses were engaged, I was in the middle of an enjoyable project in furtherance of a larger enjoyable project, I had a weekend full of good plans ahead of me, plus Dietrich always makes me think of my late friend Jimmie, who used to do a drag cabaret act in her character, and he's someone I always enjoy thinking about.

And then something happened that has never happened to me in all of the times I've made anything with a custard base: the eggs cooked too quickly in the hot liquid, in effect scrambling them and ruining everything forever.
That photo is from when I tried, heroically, to save the day by pushing the curd through a fine sieve, which worked well enough to take out the cooked egg pieces. Unfortunately, the remaining curd had an unpleasantly grainy consistency that I couldn't think of any way to undo. It was sad. And it made doing all the dishes even more annoying since I didn't have anything to show for them.

...Baking, with great success: After the emotional highs and lows of Friday night, I wanted something simpler and failproof, yet still impressive and fantastically delicious. EP and I had been brainstorming about cakes and she suggested that I make Nigella Lawson's Guinness cake, a choice of which I admit to having been a bit dismissive since I was still picturing a towering, pretty, pink Lady Cake, maybe with the names of the birthday people piped on top or, simply, YAY CAKE! But after CurdFail, when my spirit was broken and I was exhausted from sweeping up and throwing away the glittery, broken shards of my layer-cake dreams, I looked at it again and figured what the hell, Nigella has never steered me wrong. We seem to have similar palates and approaches to food and any of her recipes that I've made have turned out really well. Plus, I think she would be a blast to talk about boys with while painting our toenails.

The recipe is in Feast, but also here. I followed it exactly, except that I added both half a teaspoon of almond extract and the juice of half a lemon to the frosting. Oh! And I used a cup and a half of regular white sugar and half a cup of dark brown sugar instead of two cups of superfine sugar.That's it on the left and Erin's pear upside-down cake on the right. I made it Saturday afternoon and it was good that night, but something very special happened to it overnight and by late Sunday afternoon it was a whole different creature. The texture shifted a bit, becoming more velvety and dense, as well as less overtly chocolate, with more of an indefinable, slightly bitter undercurrent. I'm not generally crazy about chocolate cake (I'd rather just have the chocolate, thanks, or a piece of plain butter cake with fruit, not unlike that one up there, as a matter of fact) but this was outstanding. I will absolutely make this again. The cake itself is very moist and just fantastic, plus very quick and easy to throw together = WIN.

...Knitting: Yank, still. I'm just past the initial bind-off at the armholes on the back. Then two sleeves, one front band and the collar to go. I'm still not convinced I have enough yarn, but I'm getting closer to finding out.

...Planning: 1. A cardigan out of the most un-Stephanie, yet delightful, color ever.
It's Louet Riverstone Bulky in strawberry, a very bright orangey pink. I can't explain the attraction, but I love it. I also really like the way it looks against any shade of grey or navy or black or smoky purples (i.e., everything I own). I washed the skeins when they arrived because when I knit Owls out of the same yarn, there was a noticeable difference in the softness and fluffitude, not to mention an overpowering chemical scent when the wool hit the water. Although I should note that the dye was absolutely fast and no visible dirt washed out.

2. A number of sewing projects. It's about this time every year that I start to think about sewing again (and wishing that I were better at it). I have a few projects lined up that should be relatively painless.
a. Two denim skirts. I know I meant one of the denims to be the simple, a-line version and the other to have either the ruffle or the flouncy gore things, but I can't remember which. Whichever I bought more of, I suppose.
(I'm a little scared of all of those women in their cheerful skirts, I have to admit, like they're coming, armed with smiles, to drag me off to their neighborhood barbeque. At which I am to be the entree.)

b. Some pretty patterned cotton for a Built by Wendy top.
(Somehow, the faceless figures with broken necks scare me less.)

c. Two coordinating cotton prints that I know I had some grand plan for that involved a Built by Wendy top out of one of them and a skirt out of the other with either the ruffle or gores done in the shirt print so that I could either wear them together or separately. I *think* the smaller print was planned for the top. My mind's eye likes that better anyway, so that's what we're going with.

d. I have enough of this Mociun hand-printed hemp/silk for a dress, but I'm afraid of ruining it. See? I haven't even taken it out of the packaging.
I think I'll do something with that if/when all of the above projects are done. Juno and I have been having some pre-sewing pep talks — one of my pre-sewing tasks was a public declaration of intention and potential project round-up, so cross that off — and a recurring theme in our conversations has been building in a system of rewards, e.g., after we each make something that we would happily wear in public, we can spend an afternoon in the garment district; after we finish a big, ambitious project that will involve learning new skills (mine is a shirtdress), we can design and order custom fabric from Spoonflower. What can I say? I'm a simple creature; I respond to treats.


Carolyn said...

the strawberry is swoon worthy gorgeous. and is going to look beautiful on you.

i lovedlovedloved Gilead. but I could NOT read Home, the sort of followup. hated it.

Gina said...

Agreed! That yarn is most un-Stephanie, but all of the fabric appears to be more in line with the usual. Why the breakout with the orange -- Spring?

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