Saturday, August 29, 2009

I'm No Julia Child...

Last week, when my sister and I met in the East Village to see Julie and Julia, she was toting her copy of Chocolate from the Cake Mix Doctor and had turned down the corner on page 405, where the recipe for Raspberry Swirl Brownies is printed. She—who prepared Julia’s boeuf bourguignon a while back when her book group met to ponder the book on which the movie is based—had carefully selected this particular recipe as one that I, her culinary-challenged sister, could, indeed, prepare and bring to a gathering of longtime friends (we’ve known each other since the mid-1970s) scheduled for tomorrow in the New Jersey suburbs.

In all fairness, it’s not that I’m exceptionally challenged when it comes to the ways of the kitchen, but rather that I don’t derive the same pleasure or relaxation as she does from the chopping, boiling, arranging, mixing and general potchkeying around in that room with the stove, sink and refrigerator. So, it’s no surprise that when my parents visit at her house for lunch or dinner on a Sunday, they’re frequently treated to homemade hummus as an appetizer, tasty pasta combinations using such ingredients as kale, pine nuts and yellow tomatoes, and delectable desserts. An Italian plum tart with a lattice crust and a blueberry cobbler are two recent examples. (In fact, while my friends and I are enjoying Raspberry Swirl Brownies tomorrow, my sister, my parents and a few of her friends will be delighting in this Fresh Fig and Almond Crostata.) In my house, on the other hand, salsa and chips, tuna sandwiches with sliced avocado and fresh fruit are more the norm.

For me, therefore, this brownie bake-off was a chore. But, having purchased all the necessary ingredients for both the Raspberry Swirl Brownies and a batch of regular brownies (likely to be more appealing to the kids), I set out to prepare the first of the two recipes:

Raspberry Swirl Brownies

Vegetable oil spray for misting the pan
1 package (19.8 ounces) brownie mix
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup water
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ cup seedless raspberry jam
¼ cup semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup finely chopped pecans (optional)

  1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350◦F. Lightly mist the bottom of a 13- by 9-inch pan with vegetable oil spray. Set the pan aside.
  2. Place the brownie mix, melted butter, water, eggs, and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Stir with a wooden spoon until all the ingredients are incorporated and the batter lightens in texture, 50 strokes. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing it out with a rubber spatula. Drop the raspberry jam by teaspoonfuls onto the batter, and with a dinner knife swirl the jam into the batter. Scatter the chocolate chips and the pecans evenly over the top. Place the pan in the oven.
  3. Bake the brownies until the outer 2 inches have formed a crust and feel firm, 23 to 27 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and place it on a wire rack to cool completely, 30 minutes.
  4. Slice and serve the brownies.

I was totally okay with Step #1 and made it halfway through Step #2 with no problem. I don’t own a rubber spatula, however, and had to use a wooden spoon instead. Recognizing that this is not a huge culinary gaffe, I pushed on. I left off the pecans, but finally, gingerly, I placed the pan in the oven and set the timer for 24 minutes.

With recipe #1 out of the way, I got cracking on recipe #2, using the same mixing bowl I’d used for the first batch, and following the recipe on the back of the box:

Regular Ol' Box Brownies

1 package (19.8 ounces) brownie mix
½ cup oil
¼ cup water
2 eggs

  1. Preheat oven to 350◦F. Grease bottom of pan or spray with nonstick cooking spray. We recommend using Crisco Oil and No-Stick Cooking Spray.

  2. Combine brownie mix, oil, water and eggs in a large bowl; stir 50 strokes with a spoon. Spread in a greased pan.

  3. Bake as directed below. If using dark or nonstick pan, bake time may be shortened. (A chart, indicating that brownies in an 8"x8" pan should be baked at 350◦F for 45-50 minutes was printed on the back of the box.)
Again, I was good with Step #1, but ran into trouble with Step #2. The only oil I have is olive oil and something told me that just wouldn’t work. Unable to reach my sister to confirm my suspicion, I melted a stick of butter, which, when fully liquid was exactly a ½ cup (whew!) and poured it in. Fat’s fat, I reasoned…what could be bad?

When it was thoroughly mixed, I poured the batter into my 8”x8” pan and put the pan into the oven with the bigger one, which, according to the timer, still had 10 minutes to go.

When the timer sounded, the Recipe #1 brownies appeared to need a few more minutes so I put them back in and added four minutes to the timer. When it rang again, I took them out. They looked great, but lacking a wire rack (another culinary gaffe?), I had to let them cool directly on the counter.

With nearly 40 minutes still to go in the oven for Recipe #2, I set the timer, cranked the AC and stretched out on the couch. I needed a rest! ;-)

The ding of the timer, signaling that Recipe #2 was done, woke me from my cat nap. I took them out of the oven and, like those in Recipe #1, they looked great—and smelled quite yummy, too!

Of course, the proof is in the tasting and that won’t happen until sometime tomorrow afternoon. So, stay tuned for a full taste report soon.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Vocabulary Building with dcc

It started back on April 16th when my friend dcc, as he’s known in the blogosphere, forwarded to me Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day: biannual. By May 21st, when the word was plenary (another Biennial favorite!), I’d already signed up to receive the daily emails myself and before too long, one or the other of us was using the word in a sentence – often reflecting the goings-on in our own lives -- and sending it along to the other.

On June 5th I sent dcc this sentence: When there are five mah jongg players, the fifth plays the role of kibitzer.

On June 8th, I sent him this sentence: My new blank journal has a lovely vignette border on each page...and the movie I saw yesterday was filled with wonderful vignettes about the two now-famous art collectors.

On June 10th, when I was at 100 Centre Street for jury duty, I emailed this: Lots of colorful New Yorkers in the jury waiting room, but nobody who's too flamboyant. Let's hope everyone here can follow directions. Yeah, right...

On June 12th, dcc sent me this: Let us hit the links after we finish eating our links, joked the golfer as he scarfed his sausages at the diner.

In the meantime, I continued to receive an additional word a day email from and in July, I upped the ante – attempting to use both words of the day in the same sentence. Talk about putting a square peg into a round hole…some of the sentences are quite hilarious:

On July 21st dcc and I had the following exchange:

JanetheWriter: Despite my assiduous efforts, the lighting in the sanctuary at Shaaray Tefila makes reading the prayer book a challenge. Perhaps it is a touch of nyctalopia? Or maybe the lighting is just bad?!

dcc: Darn...I was going to do the same thing. I need to get up pretty early in the morning to beat you to the punch. Granted I am doing clips at 7 a.m. every day and should be able to get there, but with the darkness in my apartment, my assiduous exhaustion and my heavy eyelids leading to nyctalopia, it is a wonder I get my work done, let alone have a witty conversation with a friend.

JanetheWriter: Well done.

And this, just last week on August 17th:

dcc, whose head is shaved, sent me this sentence: Perhaps it would be considered ironic if I chose to be a trichologist.

My reply: Let's hope that when the trichologist (whether it's you or someone else) trims one's hair, it comes out smooth and silky, without the rough edges created by diastrophism.

And finally, this from dcc: That would be bad...but an earth-moving hair cut is sometimes just what the doctor ordered.

As you can see, we two logophiles are sharing wonderful daily adventures with words...and a few laughs along the way. Care to join us? Sign up here for Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day and here for's A Word A Day.

See you in the dictionary!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hey Verizon, Get Back to Work!

This afternoon I returned from a wonderfully restful and relaxing family vacation in Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Camped out in a three bedroom, two bathroom house just a short walk from the beach, we (my parents, sister and seven-year-old nephew) spent lazy days reading on the sand, building sand castles, and frolicking in the warm, wonderful waves of Risden’s Beach. Our evenings were filled with arcade games, ice cream and mah jongg with some friends staying in nearby Ocean Grove. It couldn’t have been a better week.

For some reason, while I was away, Verizon decided to take a vacation too. I returned to my apartment to find no dial tone on my phone and no internet access on my computer. Suddenly, unpacking, opening the snail mail and checking email all took a back seat to calling Verizon and, while the customer service representative on the other end of my cell phone waited, plugging a phone into the jack in the back of the closet near the bathroom, where the phone line comes into my apartment. When there was no dial tone there, she astutely told me, “It’s a problem with the network.” Duh.

Long story short: I’m currently paying for internet access at Starbucks, answering email, and writing this blog post. I'm preparing to return to work on Monday and I think Verizon needs to do the same -- now!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Dinner, Dansk, Delicious

Earlier this week, I read Theodore Nierenberg’s obituary in the New York Times. He was the founder of Dansk International Designs, maker of cookware and pottery with a modern Scandinavian flair. The bowl over there on the left was made by Dansk. I received it as a wedding gift more than 20 years ago from Ruth and Steve, z.l., Bennett, friends of my parents. Today it remains among my favorites and even though I don’t do a lot of entertaining (and am no longer married), I sometimes use it just for fruit because it’s too pretty to keep tucked away in a cabinet.

Ironically enough, just today I invited a colleague for dinner in a few weeks when I will, I’m sure, use that Dansk bowl.

Here’s how it happened…

A few days ago, I learned that this colleague, who lost his job in the Union’s March madness that restructured the entire organization and reduced the staff by 25 percent has been appointed as the director of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. Beginning in about 10 days, he’ll be spending Monday to Thursday in New York although his home and family are in the Washington, DC area.

And so I sent him the following note on Facebook:
This message entitles the bearer to a home cooked meal in New York City (a mere 10 blocks from 633) and is redeemable between August 17th and whenever “Biennial Jane” gets too busy with everyone else's chicken, fish and veggie to worry about yours! :)

Mazel tov on your new job!!
By coincidence, later in the day, I saw him briefly in the office (scroll down a bit and you can see him here, eating a falafel and chips). In a hasty hallway conversation, he told me he’d gotten my message and that he’d bring the produce (he’s an avid gardener) and cook for me.

“Oh, is that how it works?” I inquired, pleasantly surprised that even though I’d done the inviting, he’s going to do the cooking.

“Yes,” he replied, before rushing off to his next meeting.

So, in the next few weeks, keep an eye out here for that Dansk bowl and the fresh-from-the-garden fare that will fill it. What'll it be? Ratatouille over couscous? Cucumber and tomato salad? Sautéed green beans and garlic?

Doesn’t matter to me…they all sound delicious!

Stay tuned to find out…

Update: To see what deliciousness ended up on the Dansk bowl, click here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Parade Marches On

Tomorrow night marks the beginning of Tu B’Av, a minor Jewish festival that is best described as the “Jewish Valentine’s Day.” Earlier today, in an attempt to help a colleague locate congregations that do creative programming for the 40+ singles set, I wrote a short post for the Union’s blog that incorporates information about this holiday. In it, I said, “…in this instance I'm actually not looking.”

As readers of this blog know, however, I’m always looking -- and so it was that over the weekend I posted this online personal ad:

Share and share alike - 46

Bright, sincere, attractive, fun, funny and down-to-earth (but certainly not perfect) 40-something happily DJF with no kids, manageable baggage, and a rich and balanced life seeks age appropriate, honest, gentle, kind, liberal Jewish guy for sharing long strolls, silly jokes, dessert, smiles and laughter, knowing glances, romantic dinners, time at home, bumps in the road, playful banter, meaningful conversations, walks in the woods, Scrabble games, hugs and kisses, lazy weekends, secrets, movie popcorn, time away, new adventures, favorite places, ice cream sundaes, books and music, ideas, Ferris wheel and subway rides, dim sum, the Sunday Times, hopes, dreams, wishes, and more.

Tu B’Av not withstanding I received the usual, predictable replies:

Guy #1 is 32 years old.

Guy #2 is Indian.

Guy #3 responded (for the seventh time to one of my posts) with the exact same text and photo he’s been using for the last year and a half. And, although he’s a perfectly nice enough guy (I know because we met for coffee after one of his first replies), he’s not the right one for me.

Guy #4 also has answered previous posts of mine (four to be exact) and, yes, like Guy #3, he’s done so with the exact same verbiage every time. Early on (more than two years ago), we traded a few emails and in that exchange he said, “Just wanted to know if you were specifically looking for a Jewish male as I’m not.” I replied thusly: “Alas, I am seeking a Jewish guy.”

Guy #5 is 62 years old and, although he, too, may be a perfectly nice guy, in my mind, he’s too old for me. My loss? Perhaps, but at 46 (and a youthful 46 at that), it’s a loss I’m willing to bear.

Guys #6 and #7 are modern Orthodox. One of them came to Orthodoxy by way of NFTY and Eisner. (All of this I learned from earlier exchanges with each of them following replies to previous posts of mine.) Again, my loss? No, I don’t think so. Like so many of the others, these two may be perfectly nice guys…just not right for me.

Guy #8 described himself as “50 years old, 5'6, slim, with brown hair and green eyes.” Having met this guy a little over a year ago, I can tell you that he’s been 50 for a mighty long time. And, although he may see brown when he looks in the mirror, I definitely saw gray. Don’t get me wrong…there’s nothing wrong with gray, but there is something wrong with his not being honest with himself or with others.

I could go on (and on and on), but I'm sure that by now you get the picture.

And yet, I'm not willing to give up entirely on the personal ads. I am, however, ready to add some new approaches to the mix.

Lucky for me, this coming weekend, I’ll be attending a wedding. A note on the carpool page of the couple’s website (yes, it appears they thought of everything!) says, “Putting compatible people together is, of course, one of the purposes of a wedding.”

Hmmmm….perhaps in addition to uniting the bride and groom as husband and wife, this event will indeed put other compatible people together?

You never know; you just never know…