Category Archives: Dessert

MATZO TOFFEE

Last year, I was asked to be in charge of desserts for a renegade Seder.  Such is the path by which I discovered Matzo Toffee, which is what baby matzo hopes it will grow up to be someday and what you, once you make it, will be unable to stop eating.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the combination of all good flavors—the richness of bittersweet chocolate, the butteriness of toffee, the earthy snap of almonds, the crunch of matzo, & the edge and texture of quality sea salt—but if you are Jewish and observing Passover next week*, it might be exciting to discover that matzo can actually be delicious.

What is a renegade Seder, you might ask?  Well, consider that our hostess was a Jewess whose Twitter bio claims she is a “kosher pork authority.”  Her sweetheart is a Muslim and for Halloween, they dressed up as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (she taped settlements to his shirt as the night wore on).  For the reading of the Haggadah, we had gift bags full of “plagues” represented by various craft-store-acquisitions, including red foam cut-out boils.  There were Red Sea cocktails with drowned Egyptian ninja figurines.  (Please note: we love Egyptians.  We do not wish them any violence.  We were just going along with the Bible story).

And I, the Hindu, was unable to eat the desserts I had made for the Seder because I had given up desserts for Lent.  Heh.  But the toffee went over so well with the rest of the evening’s guests that they convinced me to save a bag for Easter Sunday, upon which occasion I promptly devoured what was left.

Before we dash off on vacation, I’ll be making up a batch of this good stuff in solidarity with my Jewish friends and students.  Now that I’m back from the 8th grade Washington, D.C. trip—a whirlwind, exhausting and unbelievably fun four days—I’m relishing the spring break life but already kinda miss my students.  Just don’t tell them that!

*To make this recipe kosher-for-Passover, ensure that all the ingredients are certified kosher-for-Passover and that the kitchen you’re cooking in and utensils you’re cooking with are as well.  Since this recipe contains a large amount of butter, serve it with a meatless meal or make it with kosher margarine.  You may need to omit the vanilla.

MATZO TOFFEE
Adapted slightly from David Lebovitz

You can also make this recipe with Saltines or another plain cracker, omitting the sea salt.  You might want to double the recipe, while you’re at it—it’s incredibly simple to make and very, very satisfying.

6 sheets unsalted matzo

1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces

1 cup packed light brown sugar
1

½ cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped or in chips

½ tsp. vanilla extract

a pinch of salt

optional toppings:

1 cup almonds or another nut, toasted & chopped

a few generous sprinklings of coarse sea salt

oven: 350˚
pan: Baking sheet(s) lined very well with foil, then top the foil with parchment paper.  Yes, this is necessary.  Toffee is messy business, you know.  Delicious, but messy.

Place the matzo along the bottom of the baking pan, breaking it up to cover the whole bottom.

In a big, thick saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar together over medium heat.  Bring up to a boil, stirring regularly, for about three minutes, as the mixture thickens.  Remove from heat and stir in the salt & vanilla.  Pour over the matzo, distributing the caramel mixture evenly and quickly.

Move the baking sheet(s) to the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes, watching to make sure that the caramel doesn’t burn.  (If it begins to get too dark, remove from the oven & turn down the heat to 325˚.)  Once everything is nice and golden brown, remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle the matzo with the chocolate.  Wait a few minutes, then smooth out the now-melted chocolate with a spatula.  See how you just made the recipe work for you?  Love that.

As the chocolate is cooling, sprinkle with the toppings of your choice—in my case, some almonds & good sea salt.  Let the matzo toffee cool completely before breaking into pieces and devouring it.  If there’s any leftover, it will keep in an airtight container for up to a week.

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THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: KHEER (RICE PUDDING)

I have a sweet tooth.  A serious, serious sweet tooth.


As a kid, my mom managed the sugary contents of our house with an iron fist; that is to say there weren’t really any sugary contents in our house.  Well, there was sugar, and I am ashamed to admit that more than once I snuck spoonfuls of the powdered sugar from the baking pantry and grabbed furtive handfuls of the Cinnamon Red Hots my mom kept as a secret ingredient for her holiday-time hot punch.

The first time I spent the night at a friend’s house, I opened her freezer to discover pints and pints of ice cream.  Just SITTING there.  Available for eating…whenever she wanted.  Staggering.

To be fair, my mom had good reasons to be strict about sugar.  My father developed typed-II diabetes when I was a little kid, and she was determined not to let genetics win with me.  But the truth is, much like a teetotaler’s kid, I went a little bit nuts with sugar when I achieved the freedom of adulthood.  My freshman 15 had nothing to do with beer and everything to do with Chef Roger, who took over my residential college’s kitchen and had a real way with pastry.

Those who know me know the affairs I’ve had with various kinds of ridiculous sugar products: Smarties, Bottlecaps, Laffy Taffy (but only the grape & strawberry flavors).  Chocolate isn’t safe around me, either.  I could SO have been one of those Willy Wonka kids.

In the last few years, though, I’ve worked to consciously change my tastes.  No more movie-theater-sized boxes of candy or cartons of Ben & Jerry’s for me.  Smaller spoonfuls of sugar in my tea, sometimes no sugar at all.  It’s amazing how I’ve been able to retrain my palate to the point where I can appreciate desserts and flavors I would have previously overlooked.

As a kid, kheer never appealed to me—not nearly sweet enough, of course.  But now, I love the subtlety of the cardamom and rosewater, tinged with just a bit of sweetness and finished with the salty texture from the nuts.

So I’m proud to say that my tastes have become a bit more sophisticated, though I have been known to buy a small bag Laffy Taffy at Walgreen’s every now and then…just don’t tell my mom!

KHEER (Indian Rice Pudding)

Kheer isn’t particularly difficult to make, but it does require patience.  Cook it slowly on the stove whenever you’re already planning to be in the kitchen for a while.

The best part? Kheer keeps extremely well—in fact, you may even find that it tastes better after a few days in the fridge.

ingredients:

4 cups milk*
½ cup basmati rice
½ cup chopped almonds and/or pistachios, toasted
¼ cup sweetened condensed milk
2 T ground cardamom (I love this flavor, but if you don’t, cut the amount in half)

optional: rosewater

Rinse the rice while heating the milk over medium-low heat in a heavy-bottomed pot.  Drain & add the rice to the milk, stirring to combine with a wooden spoon.

The main object while cooking kheer is to keep the milk from scorching at the bottom of the pan.  You don’t have to stir constantly, just regularly, and err on the side of caution when it comes to managing the heat on the stove.

As it cooks, the kheer will thicken.  If you prefer a thinner pudding, feel free to add extra milk.

When you’ve reached the thirty minute mark, check the rice for doneness.   Once it has been cooked through, remove the pot from the heat.  Stir in the cardamom, then swirl in the sweetened condensed milk, then check for sweetness—you may want to add a bit more.

Serve the kheer hot, warm, or cool.  Sprinkle each bowl-full with a handful of nuts and a teaspoon or so of rosewater.

*please use 2% or whole milk, it makes for far superior kheer.

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GREG’S BROWNIES

I know it’s fashionable to berate Valentine’s Day as an over commercialized trainwreck, but you know what?  I kind of like it.  Though I’m lucky enough to have someone I love to share it with (and believe me, I know that helps), what I really like about the holiday, despite it being a shallow capitalist ploy to get us all to buy crappy candy & cheesy cards, is that it puts love on the calendar.

Granted, most of what our culture has to say about love is sad, scary, dangerous crap (hello, song lyrics & “romantic” comedies)—but does that mean love has to become a bad word? I hope not, because that thing called love keeps blowing me away.  Real love, that genuine, below-the-surface, heart-full-to-bursting stuff, is the most extraordinary thing I think we, as human beings, get to experience.

Here’s what I love about love: it’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.  Just when I have stuffed world back into its custom-sized box, contained and understood, safely put away where I might observe and manipulate it…love reminds me that there are approximately 8 zillion things possible in this life of which I can barely even conceive.

Each time I get to a place where I think I know love’s dimension, understand the various ways it can work, can drive people mad, can knock us on our asses and humble us and transport and expand…then suddenly, a whole new layer unfolds and I’m stunned all over again.

Love is the one thing that will actually push me to be the person I want to be.  My love for Jill has forced me to expand, to be so, so much bigger and calmer and compassionate than I ever was before I met her.  My love for my mother has brought me to moments of unselfishness and grace that fly in the face of my barest, basest self.

These brownies are named for a man I hardly know.  Greg and his wife Sharon are friends I made via Twitter, if you can believe it, and whom I have grown to love in a way that really doesn’t make sense.  Sometimes it works that way, mysteriously.

Loving someone else takes the much-too-bright shine off of our own imperfect lives for a little while.  I’ve baked these brownies for Greg twice—once on his birthday, once following his mother’s death—and both times, the gesture usurped and created a level of intimacy beyond what we had established at that point.

So now, every time I make brownies, I think of Greg.  Whether I’m making them for their namesake, or to go into a care package for Dave’s family, or for my colleague Steve (with leftover dulce de leche swirled in), or to finish off a dinner party for Jill’s visiting friend, my circle of concern grows in the process and, for a while, it isn’t all about me.  When I throw myself into a bowl of puddled chocolate and butter, when I will myself towards care and comfort with every spatula turn, then I’m a little bit closer to mirroring love and its infinity inside myself.


GREG’S BROWNIES

The key to great brownies is great chocolate.  Personally, I have become obsessed with Callebaut, which I am lucky enough to be able to buy in bulk at a few different specialty grocers here in town.  I can’t say enough good things about springing for fancy baking chocolate, especially if you’re able to find it in large blocks like the ones pictured here.  The price-per-ounce winds up being MUCH cheaper than purchasing chocolate in chip or bar form.  And as long as you keep any leftover chocolate wrapped in plastic & tucked into a cool, dark pantry, you’ll be able to keep it on hand for months.  Please do not put it in the refrigerator!

You can also order lots of great chocolate online—given how cold it is in most parts of the world right now, you won’t have to worry about it melting.  However, if you’re in a rush or just aren’t up to my level of chocolate-obsession, buy some Ghirardelli at the very least.  Nearly all grocery stores now carry it, and I cross-my-heart swear you’ll never go back to generic chocolate again.

This recipe is my fail-safe, with the coffee & vanilla flavors nicely highlighting the chocolate-y-ness of the chocolate (yes, that’s a technical term) and the chili powder adding just a little something extra.  You can obviously switch in other flavorings, like orange or almond, and leave out the chili if it makes you nervous.

As for texture, I’ve gotta have nuts.  Walnuts are most traditional for brownies, though pecans work nicely, too.  Extra chocolate is never a bad thing in my book.  But you could also toss in toffee bits, coconut, white chocolate chunks, etc.

ingredients:

6 ½ oz. bittersweet chocolate, in chips or chopped finely
9 ½ T butter
1 T Kahlua (substitute cold coffee if you like)
1 tsp. vanilla
3 eggs
1 cup sugar, with 2 T removed
¾ cup flour
¼ tsp. ancho or regular chili powder (optional)
pinch of salt

add-ins:

½ cup chopped milk chocolate
½ cup chopped walnuts

oven: 350˚
pan: square baking pan (8 x 8 or 9 x 9)

First things first-line that baking pan with foil.  Using two sheets (one going in either direction, like a + sign,) be sure to leave plenty of overhang on either side.  Spray the inside of the foil with baking spray.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a large bowl.  Personally, I like the convenience of the microwave—just work in thirty second increments, stirring regularly to prevent burning.  Of course, you can also use a more traditional double-boiler (a.k.a heatproof bowl set over gently simmering water).

Once the chocolate and butter are melted and mixed, stir in the Kahlua and vanilla.  Set aside to cool down a bit.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together vigorously.  Add to the chocolate mixture and mix thoroughly.  Sift in the flour and pinch of salt.  Toss in the chopped chocolate & walnuts, then fold all that goodness together.

Scrape the brownie batter into the foil-lined pan, then slide the pan into the oven.  You will need some toothpicks & also, some patience.  I recommend you begin toothpick-testing at minute 30, plunging a toothpick into the very middle of the brownie pan.

Since these are fudgy brownies, the toothpick doesn’t need to come back completely clean, but it shouldn’t be covered in batter, either.  Remember, be patient!   Depending on the temperament of your oven, the brownies will take 35-45 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack for at least ten minutes.  At this point, you can lift the brownies out, using the foil overhang, and cool them further.  I know it’s hard to resist, but they really are much easier to cut if you wait at least 20 minutes.  If you must dig in, however, who will blame you? Not I. And not Greg, I’d wager.

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POACHED PEARS WITH POMEGRANATE

We’re reaching the end of pomegranate season here, which makes me a little sad.

There’s something downright seductive about the jewel-bright and difficult seeds of the fruit that tempted Persephone in the Underworld, the same fruit from which grenadine was originally made, its fuschia infamously staining to fingers, lips, pants, and shirt-fronts.

For years my father peeled me pomegranates. It was the only time I saw him wear an apron, seemingly wine-stained and spattered, tied delicately around his waist. He would buy the fruit by the case and shuck them, like pearl-laden oysters, by the half-dozen. Every fall a Tupperware container full of seeds kept constant in my family’s refrigerator, rid of their pith and ready for my consumption.

So now, the seemingly pain-in-the-ass task of undoing a pomegranate, exploring its honeycombed chambers and gently prying out the fruit (which is much easier to do when the pomegranate is submerged in a bowl of water, by the way)—it has become a kind of enactment for me, something deliberate and meaningful, connected to him and memory.

Also, you know, pomegranates are just plain delicious. You can use them in desserts or salads but I just like to throw back giant handfuls and chomp away. A few weeks ago, for a book club brunch, I wanted to make a fruit salad with some pomegranate seeds I had stored up in the fridge. The only other fruit I had in the house, though, were some Bosc pears, my go-to morning “It’s 10:00 and I am HUNGRY but it’s too early to each lunch, isn’t it?” snack.

In order to fancy things up a bit, I poached the pears before serving them with the pomegranate seeds, pouring a bit of the reduced poaching liquid over the whole dish.  My lovely book club ladies raved, and so I had to pass the idea along. This little dish would make a wonderful addition to a weekend brunch and could also serve as a light, elegant dinner party dessert.

POACHED PEARS WITH POMEGRANATE

Even when pomegranates are not available as an accompaniment, poached pears can be an elegant dessert. You can serve them warm, with ice cream, atop a tart or cake, alongside butter cookies, or with some cinnamon-spiked whipped cream.

When choosing a wine for poaching, go with something you know and like. Of course, a sweeter white will work well, as will a white with fruit or spice notes.

ingredients:

1 bottle white wine (I used this Viognier)

3-4 Bosc or Anjou pears

¼ cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick

1 whole vanilla bean

5-6 cardamom pods, lightly smashed

3-4 whole cloves

seeds from one pomegranate half

Pour the wine into a heavy saucepan, tossing in the spices. Add the sugar & stir until it dissolves. Heat the poaching liquid over medium heat until small bubbles form and wisps of heat rise from the top of the pan.

While waiting for the liquid to simmer, peel & core the pears. You may wish to poach them in halves, for a dramatic presentation, or in quarters or even slices—it’s up to you. Depending on how you slice them, you may have to poach in batches.

Once the liquid’s ready, cook the pears until they are tender, approximately 15-20 minutes. Adjust the heat so that the liquid does not come up past a gentle boil. When the pears are done, remove them and set aside, either to cool or to serve.

Strain the spices out of the saucepan and crank up the heat, bringing the liquid up to a boil. Reduce as much or as little as you like—there’s no wrong way to do this! Serve the pears warm or cold, on a bed of pomegranate seeds & doused with some of the syrupy liquid.

(Chances are, you’ll have at least a cup or two of poaching liquid/syrup leftover. Don’t throw it out! You can use it to moisten a pound or layer cake, combine it with powdered sugar for a flavorful icing, or play around using it as a cocktail mixer.)

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THE FOOD OF MY PEOPLE: SUJI HALWA

This is kind of a strange food.  And I feel a little strange blogging about it because I’m not sure any of you will ever end up making it.

Actually, that’s not true; I know at least one of you will.  When I wrote about our big ole Diwali party in October, I mentioned that suji halwa was the featured dessert, fellow blogger Cheryl requested a recipe.  I tucked her request away in my messy mental filing cabinet and am just now getting around to fulfilling it.

Suji halwa isn’t just a slightly weird Indian food I grew up eating; it’s a sacred, slightly weird Indian food I grew up eating.  Basically a sweetened cream-of-wheat, suji halwa is flavored with cardamom, often studded with nuts.

It’s traditional in North Indian, where my people are from, to use suji halwa as prashad, an edible offering brought to temple or puja, blessed in God’s presence and redistributed to those present as nourishment, in both the literal and figurative sense.  As a kid, I looked forward to Tuesday mornings because my mother would rise extra early to make a batch of suji halwa, then bless it through her morning prayers and feed it to me for breakfast.

I don’t think it’s any accident that most all of the world’s religions have traditions and rituals related to food—communion, fellowship, transubstantiation—it’s all an effort to connect to the ineffable through one of our most basic and necessary acts, eating.  We consume, we are consumed, we become one, we are molecularly joined.

This week has brought with it little moments of joy and extended scenes of the most terrifying loss and sadness.  To keep a constant, even if it’s something as humble as a porridge, builds constancy and assurance that this spinning world is still an okay place to be, in spite of the despair that comes with it.

From Diwali 2009: my dear friend Dave & his sister Diane. She is among the missing in Haiti.

SUJI HALWA

If you have ever visited a Hindu or Sikh temple, it’s likely you’ve tasted this stuff yourself.  Everyone’s version is a little bit different—what I like about my mom’s (outside of perfectly fusing with hundreds of Tuesday morning memories, of course) is that it isn’t at all greasy and goes great with a cup of tea.  Try it as a dessert or with a piece of buttered toast for an indulgent breakfast.

This recipe is all about ratios, so you can double it easily.

For the simple syrup, sugar: water, 1:2.
For the overall dish, suji: sugar = 1 :1 + 2 T.

ingredients:

1 cup water
1 cup plus 2 T sugar
1 cup fine suji (semolina)*
½ cup chopped nuts—almonds, pistachios, and/or cashews (optional)
5 T canola oil
2 T butter
1-2 tsp. ground cardamom

First, make the simple syrup by dissolving the sugar into the water and bringing it to a boil.  Set aside.

In a high-sided, heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, melt the butter with the oil over medium heat.  If using nuts, toast them in the butter until fragrant.  Add the suji and stir to coat so that you no longer see butter or oil at the bottom of the pan.

Brown the suji over medium heat, stirring regularly.  This is going to take a little while, between 8-10 minutes.  Patience, my child, patience.  You will be rewarded with an incredibly fragrant aroma and light brown color if you persist.  Don’t rush this step—the finished product won’t taste so good if you do.

Once things are toasted to your satisfaction, remove the pan from the heat and add the simple syrup.  It’s going to get splattery, so have your lid ready!  Return the covered pot to low heat and stir occasionally, using the lid as your shield.

Once the splattering has died down, add the cardamom, crank the heat back up to medium and cook until the syrup has evaporated and the suji has thickened.  The finished product should be scoop-able but still tight enough to hold up a teaspoon.

Serve warm.  Allow to cool before transferring to re-sealable containers for refrigerator (a few weeks) or freezer (a few months) storage.

*You’ll probably need to head to the Indian grocery store for this one, order online, or find packaged semolina at a specialty (natural foods or gourmet) store.

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APPLE TART

For today’s post (and I hope you won’t mind), instead of writing something new, I’ve reprinted an excerpt from an essay called “Playing the Goddess” that I published a few years ago.  At this time of year, my memory and nostalgia work overtime and I find myself longingly and gratefully thinking of my school’s Christmas pageant and the year I got to be Brown Mary. (St. Mary’s girls, if you’re out there, know that I’m thinking of you & sending much love this holiday.)

My parents sent me to St. Mary’s Episcopal School because it was the best girls’ education money could buy in Memphis, Tennessee. Unlike some immigrant parents, they were unconcerned by the school’s religious affiliation; my mother herself was educated by Roman Catholic nuns, and taught at a parochial school before she was married. And both my parents appreciated the incredibly diverse and tolerant religious landscape of India. Their friends, festivals, school holidays, symbols, and rituals ran the gamut from Hindu to Buddhist to Sikh to Christian; the lines of observance between these faiths were blurry. As my parents had discovered, so they passed on to me: Hinduism is a big umbrella; there’s a lot of room underneath.

So I was free to delve into the cool, quiet landscape of Anglican Christianity. Ever the eager student, I paid close attention in Mrs. Williams’ third-grade Bible class, sitting right in the front and peering up at her through my thick glasses. She would sit in the “teacher’s chair,” with us on the floor, and place her soft, framed felt board up against the chalkboard. Felt figures of Moses or Jesus appeared, with baskets of fish or the burning bush. Naturally, I had more questions than anyone else. Each story was new to me, and I was hooked. An avid reader, I discovered that the Bible was full of wild, fascinating stories that seemed more grownup than anything else I was allowed to read. The heartbreak and suffering of Jesus held me tight. In my mind’s eye, I saw him as a kindly, loving, sad man. And I began to notice that all the girls around me wore crosses around their necks, connected to him in a way that I wasn’t. While I sat behind, they walked up to the altar to receive communion. These were the limits of my belonging.

At the same time, I relished being different. Christianity was my exotic, but I was exotic to everyone else. My friends and classmates started asking me questions about what I believed, how my religion was different. I stopped taking for granted the Sanskrit prayers my family and I said and started asking about their meaning. My parents found books in English that re-told the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabarata, Hinduism’s great epics, full of murder, intrigue, sex, and miracles to rival the most fantastic parts of the Old Testament. As my connection to my own religion grew, so did my fondness for high-church worship, the pomp and circumstance, traditional liturgy, and booming organ. The sensory onslaught of an Episcopalian church service is somewhat tamed-down in comparison to that of my birth religion, but both know how to put on a good show.

At times, I struggled with just how far to join in, whether it was alright to say “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” when I didn’t actually believe in him. No doubt, many of my fellow classmates were also skeptical or uncertain in their beliefs, but they had the luxury of habit and belonging. If their internal landscape didn’t match the external, no one was the wiser. But from the outset, I looked like a non-believer and I weighed my participation very carefully. As a Hindu, I was frustrated by the way my culture and religious traditions were often appropriated and mishandled by outsiders. It was important to me not to commit the same crime against Christianity.

Of course, I felt like an outsider in Hinduism too. Connected through my parents and centuries worth of traditions, my own personal stake in Hinduism was never as grounded as I thought it should be. Church was more interesting than temple; at least I could understand what everyone was saying and singing. The guilt I felt over my half-hearted engagement was tempered by a desire to protect and uphold my heritage, a duty which was important to me. Some first-generation kids push as far away from the “home country” as possible; I didn’t want to be one of them. Still, I knew that my main tie to Hinduism was nostalgic, not immediate. And as was the case with Christianity, my personal affiliation had everything to do with the group in which I wanted to belong. In both religions, I felt equally at home—that is to say, halfway like an intruder in both cases.

Over time, the splitting of theological hairs became less important to me, and the power of community, worship, and tradition took over. Whether I believed in the stories or not, they were good stories, powerful ones which had lasted for thousands of years. The cost of separating myself out from either group seemed too big a price to pay. So I bowed my head and heard myself repeating the same words as a church-full of people, the Apostles’ Creed, which I learned by heart. After I was asked to speak in chapel during Religious Diversity Week, I became known as the “Indian Oprah” for the way I had weaved my way through the pews with a cordless mike, answering students’ questions about my religion. At home, I enacted and absorbed what my parents placed before me—no eating meat on Tuesdays, wearing new clothes on Diwali—trusting that it was all somehow important for continuity’s sake. I felt to myself like a believer, if a loosely defined one. And there were always two creeds which I never had a problem saying, or meaning: the first from the Bhagavad Gita, modern Hinduism’s most sacred text, the second from St. Mary’s daily chapel service. In the first, Lord Krishna is instructing one of his faithful, Arjuna, about the proper way to live one’s life. Any man who acts with honor cannot go the wrong way, my friend. The second ended each chapel service at St. Mary’s, Monday through Friday, from my fifth grade to my twelfth grade year. Our chaplain said, Go in peace, to love and serve to Lord. And we responded, Thanks be to God.

St. Mary’s has many long-standing traditions (they’ve been educating young women since 1847), but my favorite has always been the Christmas pageant. This event has two sets of participants: little girls and big girls. The little girls are the second-and-third graders, who dress in red cassocks and white cottas and stand on risers to sing the evening’s program of Christmas hymns. The big girls are the seniors, who are grouped to form living tableaux, displayed while the little girls sing their songs. Each tableau is modeled after a painting of the Annunciation, Nativity, or Adoration done by one of the French or Italian masters. A shadowbox, about the size of a walk-in closet, was built long ago for this purpose, and is placed at the top of the red velvet stairs which lead up to the altar of the church. Christmas trees, left plain, are brought in to block the rest of the altar from view, so that big girls can hide behind, getting ready for their turn.

For seniors at St. Mary’s, the Christmas Pageant is second in importance only to graduation. To be part of the tableaux, seniors have to have been at St. Mary’s since at least the first grade. That makes eleven or more years during which the little girls have grown into big ones, watching the Pageant every year, sitting in the dark of the church, watching the beautiful seniors sit very still against the bright lights of the shadowbox. Each year, the senior class and high school faculty elect six girls to play the part of Mary. It is an honor which carries weight. The girls playing Mary should be worthy of their role, should have demonstrated love and compassion and sacrifice during their time at St. Mary’s. The school motto, “light and life,” should be exemplified in them. I feel lucky to be able to say my class took that vote very seriously, beyond a popularity contest. Even though we were big girls, there was still something about the idea of Mary, full of grace. She who gave birth to the Savior of Men. She who raised the Son of God.

With this in mind, we voted, and I became the first non-Caucasian, non Judeo-Christian Mary in school history.  “Brown Mary,” my friends and classmates called me, lovingly. It felt like a victory, one in which we all shared, injecting new life into an old tradition, scandalizing the church ladies a little bit. “Your skin color is probably more historically accurate than anyone else’s,” my high school history teacher said, and we arranged for my fellow Hindu, Amrita to be my Joseph. Behold the holy family, dark-skinned and authentic. Me, the mother, vehicle, and proud.

I got very sick the night before the pageant, amidst the swirl of exams and college applications which came with Christmas that year. It was bronchitis, and the doctor at the minor medical clinic warned me that it could get worse. “You need to rest, young lady,” he told me. “I know you won’t mind if I make you stay home from school tomorrow,” winking, thinking he was doing me a favor. “You don’t understand,” I protested. “I have to go.” We went back and forth like this for a while; I think he thought I was crazy. It isn’t easy to explain in five minutes what twelve years has built inside you. “Okay,” he relented. “I’ll give you a strong antibiotic and a painkiller. You’re going to have to try to break your fever—otherwise, you’re still contagious, so no go.”

I slept that night, exhausted and upset. The next morning, I hovered around 100 degrees, but was adamant that the fever would break. I had to be at school by noon—that much leeway my principal would give—the pageant started at two-thirty. My mother wrapped me in blankets, brought me warm liquids, lemon and honey for my aching throat. She chanted for me in Sanskrit from the prayer room down the hall and took my temperature every half-hour. “I know better than to argue,” she sighed. But we were both surprised at how hard I was trying. This ritual, this honor I had earned, this seeming contradiction, I wasn’t about to let go. Goddess, mother, Mary, someone. Please. Make me the vessel, give me your strength. I want to do this.

At eleven-fifteen my fever broke.

My mom walked me into the church where twenty-nine other girls were rehearsing their scenes and posing for photographs. The handful of girls standing in the shadowbox at the time caught collective sight of me and called out. “Nishta!” The room turned and I was flooded, overwhelmed with gladness, their gladness; that I was okay, that I was there. “You are supposed to be here,” they said. “You have to be our Brown Mary.”

Immediately, girls went to work on my transformation. It’s all a bit of a medicated blur—I felt woozy and weepy and wholly grateful. I sat on a hard pew in the bright and sunny side-chapel while they took care of me. Sarah, da Vinci’s Mary, dashed out in her silver Volvo to buy me chicken noodle, tomato, and cream of mushroom soups, because she wasn’t sure which one I would like. Kemper, da Vinci’s angel Gabriel, took charge of my makeup. “Now close your eyes, sweetie,” she said in her sweet, round, Southern voice. I felt the cool, black pencil against the edge of my warm eyelid, heard the second- and third-graders rehearsing in the background.

When it was time for my tableaux, I scrambled into place along with Amrita and our three friends, playing shepherds. We had a few moments in the dark before the next song began, and I remember being afraid that I was going to accidentally move; blink my eyes too much, scratch my nose, or, worst of all, pass out. I still didn’t feel very well, and I was afraid it might show. But then I felt Amrita’s hand on my shoulder from behind, where she stood as my Joseph. And that blue velvet curtain opened, and the lights came on, from either side of box, incredibly bright and incredibly hot. The whole thing felt a little bit ridiculous, sitting in a pine box, dressed up like an unwed Jewish mother from two thousand years ago.

I tried to quiet my mind and focus on the rows of hushed and darkened heads that watched me in the distance. Out of the corner of my eye, the little girls, standing oh-so-politely on metal risers, their stocking feet tucked into pair after pair of black Mary Janes. I heard their baby gasps for breath as they tried to make it all the way through the “Gloo-ooo-oooo-oooria” and into “excelsis Deo.” In that moment, I realized that thin line between the ridiculous and the magical is governed by belief. An opera is only successful if its audience is willing to suspend its cynicism for a little while and dive in. Ritual works the same way.

After my turn, I joined my friends, huddled down in the darkness, hidden behind the strategically placed Christmas greenery. The cool, plush carpet was a relief; the girls had even sneaked a ginger ale onto the altar for me. Eyes sparkled all around as we, with muted voices, began to sing along with the little ones, who, in a handful of years, would take our place.

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good.
O the rising of the sun,
The running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir,
Sweet singing in the choir.


APPLE TART

for the crust:

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 egg
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt

for the filling:

4 apples (I used McIntosh), peeled*, cored, & thinly sliced
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon

for the glaze (optional):

½ cup apricot jam
juice of half a lemon

oven: 350˚
pan: 9- or 10-inch tart pan (preferably with a removable bottom) OR pie pan

Butter the pan thoroughly & set aside. To make the dough, cream the butter & sugar together in the bowl of an electric mixer at high speed. Reduce speed to medium and add the egg. In a separate bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, & salt together—then gently add to the mixer bowl.

Press the dough (which will be soft) evenly into the tart pan, being sure to go all the way up the sides. Arrange the apples on top of the crust in any pattern that pleases you. Combine the cinnamon & sugar, then sprinkle generously over the apples.  Dot the apples with a few extra tablespoons of butter.

I find it’s easiest to place the tart pan on a baking sheet and to place the whole thing in the oven. Bake the tart for 45-55 minutes. Look for a lightly browned crust and set filling. Cool slightly on a wire rack.

A glaze is certainly not necessary but is easy to do and adds another level of flavor. To make the glaze, simply combine the jam & lemon juice in a small saucepan over low heat. Use a spoon or spatula to break up any clumps, bringing the glaze up to a boil. Remove from heat and brush or dribble over the tart.

Listen, this tart needs NOTHING (no. thing.) to be delicious, but it certainly won’t hurt the tart’s feelings (or mine) if you decide throw a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Myself? I like to top with homemade, lightly-sweetened whipped cream that’s also been spiked with Amaretto. Hey, it’s the holidays!

*As you can see, I did not choose to peel the apples this time around, just to see what would happen. No one complained–in fact, it was promptly devoured-but it’s more traditional to peel the apples, so do whatever feels best to you. Note that the peel will add texture.

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ALMOND COCONUT BARS

[Inspired by this blog, which you ought to check out.  Rachael’s writing is addictive & she’s rather swell in person, too.]

This post is a little behind.

Normally, I post on Fridays.
But that was not to be this week.  The confluence of
end-of-the-semester business,
start-of-holiday-season events,
and the regular to-do list
did me in.

Of course, I recognize
that the problem
of not posting your blog
on the day to which you (and your readers)
are accustomed
is a first-world problem.

I think all of my problems
(if you can really call them that) fall
into that category.  I am committed
to being cognizant of that
as close to
all-of-the-time
as possible.

It’s easy to lose perspective in this mad-cap world.

My parents’ anniversary was also this week.  Or would have been.  Or something.
Verb tenses get so messed up
when someone dies.

December 8, 1967.
That was a long time ago.
My mom was twenty.
My dad was twenty-five.

They were little.  Younger than I am now
and so good-looking.

Weren’t they just?  If they don’t look
very excited to you,
there’s a good reason for that.

It was only the third time
they had ever met.
I know, right?
Arranged marriage & whatnot.

There’s actually a very fascinating
longer version
of the story
in which my mom
rejected some other dude

(and thank goodness she did, or
somebody we know
would not be sitting here right now)

but I am saving the longer version
of the story
for my book.
So you’ll just have to wait for it.

There are a lot of things
I miss about my dad.

The scariest thing about losing someone
when you least expected it
is that you live in fear
of forgetting
what they looked like
and smelled like
and the sound of their voice
saying your name.

Luckily I have that.
In a forty-second clip
from our trip to India
which we took
a month before he died.

Sometimes I just listen to it
over and over again
and cry.

And then I usually cook something—
(that’s my solution to every problem, really)
something he would like
something he would want to eat
something he would be proud of me making.

These almond-coconut bars were his favorite.
He had a knack
for waking up from his nap
(he used to take the most epic naps)
just as these suckers
were ready to come out of the oven.

He liked to eat things
PIPING
hot.  I don’t know how he did it.

I wish he were here
to sneak some now
and say, “Don’t tell your mother”
while winking conspiratorially.

I keep waiting
for him to show up
even though I know
he won’t.

ALMOND COCONUT BARS

1 ½ cup graham cracker crumbs*
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 T sugar

1 egg
¾ cup light brown sugar
½ cup shredded coconut (recipe calls for sweet, if substituting unsweetened, bump up the sugar)
½ cup chopped almonds
¼ cup flour
1 T. cream or milk
1 tsp. vanilla

pan: 9 inch square
oven: 400˚

Combine the first three ingredients to make the crust—press into the bottom of the pan and bake for 5 minutes.

While the crust is browning, beat the egg until foamy, then beat in the brown sugar.  Stir in the remaining ingredients and spread the mixture over the hot graham cracker layer.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the center is firm to the touch.  One caveat: check the bars at the 15 minute mark.  Because ovens vary so much, the tops of your bars may brown before baking time is up.  If that’s the case, simply cover the pan with foil for the remainder of baking.

* Yes, you can buy them pre-made but they vaguely resemble sawdust.  If you have a food processor, it couldn’t be easier to make your own crumbs.  Second easiest: sealable plastic bag, rolling pin, energetic child.

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