November 30, 2011

Simpler than Suspected: Irish Soda Bread

At my church, I direct a small choir of first and second graders. I love it. It's one of the joys and highlights of my whole week and I look more forward to talking about quarter notes, hoot-owl voices and "a" vowels than editing the next chapter in my dissertation. We sing from memory with story board aids, and we play games like musical hangman and pictionary. We talk about words and what they mean, and we are quickly learning about dynamics, diction, and vowel modification. Did I mention that I love this? Sometimes these precious children have the most thought-provoking questions, both about music and about the words they are singing. Today, while learning "The Friendly Beasts" for our Christmas pageant, we talked about "Emmanuel," what the name meant, why it was important for God to be on earth with us and why we celebrated it. Oh-so-curious questions followed: "why did the wise men bring those spices?" "what does Hallelujah mean?" and the kicker, "so who died first, Jesus or God?" Oh man. I am so on my toes.

But my REAL coup-d'etat for this group is coming on the third Sunday of Advent. I've gotten the green light to teach my children to sing in German - and not just everyday German; crunchy, Baroque, Ludwig Krebs-style German. I'm so excited I can barely wait. Like so many German Baroque composers, Krebs set Philip Nicolai's hymn tune Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme to a chorale prelude, which was probably conceived for an instrument (trumpet, and the like) in the cantus firmus. Anyway though, it was later set for a chorus - of sweet Episcopal children's voices, nonetheless - all singing in perfect unison and perfect German diction. Let me say, it has been quite the experience trying to figure out techniques to impart this beautiful language on my smarter-than-average Chapel Hill-area young'uns. I made all sorts of colorful story boards with phonetic spellings and illustrations: "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" becomes "Va-cut owf roof toons die Shh-tim-muh" (complete with pictures of scissors for "cut," house roof for "roof," Bugs Bunny for "toons" and so on and so forth).'s working. And some of these sweet, unsuspecting chickadees are downright good at the stuff. I could not be more proud. German language paired with someone as crunchy-Baroque as Ludwig Krebs? And the iconic hymn tune Wachet auf to boot? I'm in music education heaven. 

November 27, 2011

Refining a Classic: Tomato Soup

In Washington, D.C. right now you can visit a fascinating exhibit on the history of government influence on American diets over the past 200+ years. The exhibit is called What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? and is hosted by the National Archives. Ingeniously, the exhibit also features a temporary menu of historic American recipes at America Eats Tavern in downtown Washington. The menu is eclectic and extravagant; it features delicacies like raw oysters and "catsups" (among the interesting flavors are blueberry and anchovy), hoppin' john, cold peanut soup, and Kentucky burgoo. Just reading the titles of these dishes makes one think back to reading about cooking beans and cornbread over spitfire stoves in Little House on the Prairie. Although the American West is featured prominently in dishes like bison steak and short ribs, the South actually gets most of the menu's attention. Jambalaya, shrimp and grits, turtle soup, and étouffée are prepared according to 19th century Southern cookbooks. One of the best appetizer features to me was fresh, hot hushpuppies. Rough with cornmeal and not at all cakey like many restaurant hushpuppies, these delightful little things were served with soft, sweet butter. My favorite title in the menu was called "Abalone with Butter-Pepper Air, Bourbon Worcestershire." Butter-pepper air? Seriously? And speaking of seriously, what about the Peanut Butter and Jelly with fois gras? As intrigued as I was, I ordered a "Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding" for dinner, which was essentially an old-fashioned macaroni and cheese with cremini mushrooms. For dessert, I tried the Vermont Maple Sugar on Snow, which really reminded me of the maple syrup and snow desserts that the Ingalls family made in Little House in the Big Woods. It was delicious - thick maple syrup poured over a hill of shaved ice, underneath which was a soft mound of cream. Flecked over the snow were tiny wisps of orange peel and maple sugar candy. Truly unique and inspiring!

November 24, 2011

Pumpkin-Pecan Cheesecake

Happy Thanksgiving!

I learned so much about Thanksgiving today. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621, a year after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Members of the Wampanoag tribe taught these settlers how to grow vegetables like pumpkin, squash, and corn. Squanto, the Patuxet, was there. Standard, right? The disappointing news to me was that the Pilgrims really didn't wear those Pilgrim costume with white collars and stovetop hats with buckles. (I know, right?) They wore flat-bottom hats and were probably tired, sick and dirty when they ended their 66 day voyage across the Atlantic. (Just typing that out made me queasy.) Many of their shipmates died at sea. What they celebrated in 1621 was not a blissful and harmonious gathering of Pilgrims and Native Americans. Rather, the Pilgrims gathered to give thanks for their sheer survival - for making it through a harsh North American winter, for their Wampanoag friends who taught them to grow crops so they wouldn't starve, and for the bounty of harvest that those crops yielded. After all, what they encountered in the weeks and months after landing at Plymouth Rock was an established, civilized settlement of Wampanoags who had hunted, planted, and fished in the region of North America for thousands of years. This extreme clash of cultures - not to mention the sophistication that the Wampanoags brought to the Pilgrims' meager diet - is one of the less attractive parts of the traditional Thanksgiving story. I still can't get over the absence of buckles on hats, but this less romantic more accurate account reveals more about the cooperation between two vastly different cultures than anything the storybooks could describe. Of course there were rough edges to the account; of course some of the English were uncouth (but at least they wore some kind of 17th century headgear). But the coming together of cultures around one of the most basic of human needs - food - is what makes the Thanksgiving story so special to Americans.

So speaking of the coming together of elements to create our country's most perfect holiday, let's discuss this pumpkin-pecan cheesecake. Not as straightforward as pumpkin pie and not as sugary as pecan pie, this recipe uses cream cheese as the medium that cuts through the bold flavors of pumpkin and pecan. The combination of these holiday flavors is subtle yet sophisticated, and hearty cheesecake after Thanksgiving dinner is every bit as satisfying as the traditional pies.

November 22, 2011

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies

This afternoon I tutored a young writer who was writing an application for a professional program. English was not her first language but she spoke and wrote with considerable accuracy. At the end of our hour-long discussion about English articles, word choice, cause/effect sentences, and other gnarly grammatical issues, she asked me a personal question: "would it be appropriate to give a little gift to a mentor who is writing me a letter of recommendation? It's customary in my home country but in the U.S. it might be off-putting." I fully encouraged her to go with her plan. It was so sweet and heartfelt; I'm sure that any letter-writer would be completely delighted with a little token of gratitude. Frankly, I told her, there should be more gift-giving to those for whom we are thankful. Something small and unobtrusive, like a tin of cookies or a pot of flowers. After all, where did we get the idea that bigger is better? A small gift represents a large amount of thought and consideration. For those of us who are likely to enter the homes and lives of others for Thanksgiving celebrations, consider the impact that such small tokens of gratitude have, for host and guest alike.

With that, I present to you whole wheat chocolate chip cookies. Not a typo and really not an oxymoron either. Cookies can be (semi-) healthy too. I got this recipe from a wonderful book called Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce. In this book, Ms. Boyce teaches us that baked goods do not all have to be pasty, fatty, and heavy. She has spent years experimenting with all kinds of whole grains, and not just whole wheat flour: amaranth, graham, spelt, teff, buckwheat, barley, and several other exoticorustic (new word, please don't look it up for it is not there) grains grace her pantry. This cookbook explains the function and taste of all these grains, how to pair them with different sugars and flavors, and, most importantly, how to balance them with white flour. Whole wheat chocolate chip cookies are the only dessert in this book that uses exclusively whole wheat flour, rather than a mixture of grains and white flour. This is the third time I've baked them and each time I am stunned beyond measure at how good they taste. The whole wheat gives these cookies a nutty, round flavor, rustic texture, and overall wholesome taste.

I ran out of whole wheat flour today (of course) and all I had left was white whole wheat. Well friends, I am here to tell you that you can substitute whole wheat for white whole wheat at a ratio of 1:1. White whole wheat is simply milled from white wheat rather than the standard red. You can read all about it here and then I promise to stop with the nerdy Wikipediaing (also new word).

November 20, 2011

Doodles and Ice Cream

I sing in a big community choir. It's a total joy to see other singing friends on otherwise drab Monday nights and make music for a couple of hours before commencing with the rest of the week. And we sing good stuff. I mean, really really good stuff. I'm a soprano, the high variety. If anybody out there knows soprano singers they know that we don't really think much about harmonic lines or musical complexity. In fact, we don't have to think much at all. We get distracted and we are very full of ourselves. It's great fun.

Rouse, Karolju. Too many non-soprano
parts = copious time to doodle on blank title page.

So when I am sloughing off in soprano world, I often let my mind wander and think about the pictorial dimensions of music. Ever the good chorister, I always have pencil in hand. Unfortunately, the pencil does as much to entertain me and my unsuspecting soprano neighbors (and select altos, of course) than just about anything else.

Oh and this barely scratches the surface of my many, many doodle examples. If there were ever a career made for a professional distracted-singer-doodler I'd tell the rest of you to step aside. These are, after all, the finer things of life.

November 19, 2011

Chocolate Cinnamon Cake

When I was about seven or eight, I helped my mom bake a cake. I can't remember what kind it was - German chocolate or cream cheese spice cake or one of those really decadent, vaguely-holiday cakes. Maybe it was a birthday cake. In any case, I do remember that it was my grandmother's recipe and it called for "a box" of powdered sugar. We didn't know what the box meant. Was it big or small? Did it matter if we had a bag instead? After a moment of hesitation, my mom picked up the phone and dialed. The conversation went something like this:

November 18, 2011


This week I bought a wedding dress. I can't describe it in full detail until the actual wedding because my fiancé has been adamant about not seeing or even hearing about the dress until the wedding itself. But let me just say this: it is timeless, classic, and southern without being gaudy or immodest. In the bridal shop, I attached a large, slightly unstructured magnolia to the cummerbund. The attaché made my decision for me. It transformed the dress from a piece of silk and lace on a hanger to something that was meaningful, significant, and innately personal.