Saturday, November 26, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Six: Biscotti Weather

In the achingly beautiful short memoir, "A Christmas Memory," Truman Capote recalls "my friend," the distant cousin on whom the story centers along with his seven-year-old self, waking on a late November morning and exclaiming "Oh,'s fruitcake weather!"

Yesterday I stood at the window, looked outside at the gray November day, and exclaimed, "Oh my, it's biscotti weather!"

Six years ago I wrote about my biscotti baking. I still bake biscotti every year, the circle of recipients widening. Now I bake for the Andrews House Christmas Cupboard, an annual fundraising event by one of our local non-profits doing frontline work among those who are in need. Our Legal Clinic has been hosted by Andrews House for over 13 years, and this is a way for me to say back to the staff and board "thank you." I ship more biscotti out west than I used to: some to my children, some to my extended family of Alise's parents and of Eric and Brandee and their girls. Some will be shipping south; some will be delivered just a few blocks away.

When I blogged about the biscotti in 2010, I included a recipe. While I still follow the same recipe, some of my opinions have changed, so I am setting out below the recipe with April's 2016 editorial comments.

And biscotti even brings me to poetry, including this from last fall:

On Time

I have been baking biscotti
For days now
In a slow rhythm
And shutting down the computer tablet email facebook
Each evening
Trying fiercely to carve out sanctuaries of time.

In the morning
When I come downstairs to make oatmeal
I open the deck door and step outside
In the chill dark
Or the damp
And stand there to try to measure the day
Not to tell the weather
But to make myself more aware
Of the fragility of each day.
Sometimes a lone crow
High in the walnut tree caws.

While I type this
At my office
I think of the deck
And the silence of the morning
And the smell of cinnamon
Lacing the house each evening.


The Biscotti Recipe

As I noted six years ago, this is not a secret family recipe. No one in my family on either side of the family ever baked biscotti. I can pretty much guarantee that not one of my four grandparents ever even heard the word biscotti, let alone tasted it. Somewhere I stumbled on the recipe, and in a happy moment of serendipity, biscotti became my holiday baked item.


1½ cups pecans or almonds*
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon**
5 eggs
2 cups sugar
½ cup melted unsalted butter***
1 ½ tablespoons grated orange rind****

Notes on ingredients

*This recipe originally called for almonds. I made it with pecans for years. Either works. I now prefer the almonds, as they make for a more flavorful cookie.

**At a minimum. If I am using what I call OTC cinnamon (the regular, widely available stuff as opposed to more pungent specialty cinnamons), I usually use a heaping tablespoon.

***Using salted butter will not kill this, but it really is better with unsalted. I have never made this with margarine or any other substitute, so I have no experience with using something else.

****Use it if you have it. I used to skip this ingredient entirely. A few years ago I realized it was worth the extra effort to buy some oranges and grate the rind.


Preheat over to 350°. Prepare 2 baking sheets: I use parchment paper, but you may coat lightly with vegetable spray or Crisco. With parchment paper, I am guaranteed the biscotti will not stick.

Chop (by hand or with food processor) ½ cup of nuts fine (like flour); set aside.

Coarse chop the remainder of the nuts and place in small bowl with flour, baking powder and cinnamon. I usually whisk these ingredients to blend them.

In large bowl, beat eggs on medium speed until fluffy. Add finely ground nuts (the ½ cup), sugar, butter, and orange peel. Beat until blended. Note: I use a mixer through this step.

Stir in flour mixture to form dough. The dough should be fairly stiff and heavy, but not dry. I will use a mixer to start the process, then finish with a spoon. (Note: I have a hand mixer, not a stand mixer. If you have a heavy-duty Kitchenaid or similar workhorse, you may be able to mix everything with your mixer.)

Divide dough into quarters. On well-floured work surface, roll and shape each quarter into a log approximately 12 inches long and 1-2 inches wide. It is like rolling fat "snakes" from clay; dust your hands with flour. Place 2 logs on each baking sheet and bake 25-30 minutes, until "firm in center" per the original recipe. There is no magic to this: 25 to 30 minutes in a stove at 350° will get the desired results. (Note: you can bake both sheets (all 4 logs) at the same time, rotating top/bottom, front/back at 15 minutes. I used to do this, but now bake one sheet of logs at a time. I was reminded why with my first batch, when I doubled up and the bottom sheet became too browned on the bottom. Tasty, yes, but not pretty!)

Let logs cool slightly: 10-15 minutes. While still warm, cut each log diagonally into ½ inch thick slices (or whatever other thickness you desire). Place slices face down on baking sheets (as opposed to on edge). Bake 7-8 minutes; turn slices and repeat on other side. Again, you can bake two sheets of biscotti at the same time; rotating top/bottom, front/back. Depending on your cutting and layout skills, you may get all biscotti baked at the same time. Or you can slow down and stretch out the experience. The individual biscotti can be set close, as they do not spread. Cool on wire rack.

Makes up to 80 cookies a batch, depending on how thick you cut the slices. I tend to get 20 cookies to a log.


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Five: Madeleine and Me

I did not discover the writer Madeleine L'Engle until my older son Ben, who is now almost 31, brought her books home sometime in elementary school. Even though her earliest works, including her Newberry Award winner A Wrinkle In Time (1962) appeared during my childhood, somehow I managed to make it into adulthood before realizing what a rich literary universe she created with her "Chronos" and "Kairos" series.

Trust me, I made up for lost time.

Because I became a L'Engle fan, I tended to gravitate towards her titles when I came across cheap books or throwaway books. Which is why about 12 years ago, when my friend Linda and I came across some boxes of discarded books during a morning walk, my hands immediately went to a battered hardback of A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third book in the Kairos series. It was a discard from Brookville High School, worn but still serviceable.

It is a first edition, published in 1978. And, wonder of wonders, it is signed by the author.
For all at Brookville High School—
Madeleine L'Engle
Well, there's glory for you.

I have held onto my signed first edition for all this time, enjoying seeing Madeleine's flourish across the page. I figured finding a signed book randomly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It turns out I was wrong.

Delaware has started to see a proliferation of Little Free Libraries. Little Free Libraries are a wonderful community project at a grassroots level. They operate on the "take a book, leave a book" principle and Delaware now has a handful of them.

The libraries are mounted in front yards, near a sidewalk, so passersby may stop and explore the offerings. There is four within easy walking distance of here. (I have not yet talked Warren into building and installing one.)

One is very close to the county building in which I work. A few weeks ago, I stopped to scan the titles. There was a paperback version of L'Engle's Troubling a Star, and I took it. It is not my favorite work by her, but I figured I could read it at chemo and recirculate it at another LFL.

The book sat on a coffee table for a week or so before I picked it up to pack it for the day. And that was when I opened the book and found this:


Madeleine L'Engle died in 2007, but her books live on. In 2011, when I read all the Newbery Award books to date (something I have continued to do since 2011), I named When You Reach Me by Patricia Stead the best Newbery ever, not in small part because it was a beautiful tribute to L'Engle and A Wrinkle In Time.

And I have her beautiful signature flowing across two books, both acquired randomly, both part of my library.

Madeleine and me. Best book friends forever.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Four: Walking

It's been a hard several days. A week ago Thursday, my friend Kim, chemistry professor, father, husband to my good friend Judy, died of a heart attack at age 56. To say that Kim was well-respected and beloved in this community is the least of it. His memorial service, held yesterday, was SRO.

When a friend dies so suddenly, one's sense of the immediacy and fragility of life is sharpened acutely.

I have been walking a lot lately, walking to clear my thoughts, walking to mute the questions in my mind about my own mortality. We are having a spectacular fall, and I try to get out into it every single day. This morning I walked for an hour, first downtown to deposit a check, then home via several streets in the neighborhood. The morning sky was brilliant blue. Many trees are still holding onto their leaves, and when the sun lights the yellow-gold and red ones up against that sky, it is enough to make me catch my breath in wonder.

As I finish this post, I have just come in from another, far shorter walk. Aunt Ginger lives a block away, and I walked down to check on and visit with her, then walked home. It is late afternoon now and the sun hangs heavy in the west, far to the south. My steps were slower than this morning; I am tired.

My "good enough" garden is in its late fall stage. The border marigolds, mostly between three and four feet tall (yes, feet, not inches) have managed to survive the frosts so far. So have the blanket flowers, planted closer to the back of the garage. The frosts, however, are getting deeper and coming almost nightly now. The day is not far off when there will be one hard killing frost and the garden will be done.

Up until these last few days, as the sun warmed the air, bees of various shapes and sizes could be found in the marigolds, often headfirst in the heart of the bloom, mining whatever remaining bits they could for the long winter ahead. This time of year, the bees are slower and I am able to get close to photograph them without fear of being stung. I wandered outside late morning today; the air, despite the sun, was still chill at noon and there were no bees plying their trade. They may be gone for the year. 

Our Poetry Nights continue. We've added Margo to the group, and may be bringing in one more person. Our evenings are full of poems and laughter and thoughtful discussions. At our second October gathering, reflecting on the bees, I shared this one:

It Is Late October

It is late October
The marigolds are still standing
Despite the frost
The bees are burrowing
Into the marigolds
The bees are slower
Yet labor on against the encroaching winter
Storing up treasures
Not knowing when spring will come again.

It is late October
I too am still standing
Despite the frost
I too am burrowing
Into life
I am slower
Yet labor on against the encroaching winter
Storing up treasures
Not knowing if spring will come again.

I feel a closeness to the bees and the marigolds. I too am in the autumn of my life, with winter coming on. I too am burrowing headfirst into what matters most to me, hoping to store up one more treasure, one more moment, one more sunlit leaf. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Inch One Hundred Forty-Three: Words of Wisdom

My "little" brother Mark, with whom I am close, often posts quotes on his Facebook page. Some are observations. Some are inspirational. Sometime he will tag someone—his wife Jackie, one of his adult children, me—in his post.

In October, I suggested to him that we post a quote a day throughout November. Mark accepted and we are off and running.

My advantage is that I have almost three decades of quotes written down in commonplace books I have been keeping since the late 1980s. I am currently filling out volume 4. I sat down two nights ago and went through the volumes, bookmarking quotes I thought would be good. I went through again last night and winnowed out some of the bookmarks, as I reflected further on what I wanted to share. Even with the second read, I still have more than 30 marked, so I should cruise through the month.

Mark's advantage is that he beats me to the computer. I thought he was just an extra early riser, but I discovered this morning that he posts his quote the night before. Either way, that means he gets his quote for the day up way before I do. If we both have chosen the same quote, Mark has first dibs, which is why I will not be posting an Albert Schweitzer quote later this month since Mark used it yesterday. Mark generously suggested that I post my quote the night before too, but I shut off my computer in the early evening and cannot access the internet through my old flip phone. So I will continue to trail Mark, and trust our respective interests range far enough that I won't be foreclosed too much.

My quote today was going to be by E. B. White. But when I woke up and saw that the long-suffering Chicago Cubs had indeed won the World Series, I posted one by Andrea Hairston instead: "Hope is always a guest at our table."

I will no doubt post several quotes about hope this month, as I have captured many on that theme throughout the decades. It was fascinating to see hope recur continuously in different variations, including the White quote that I will use later this month.

Robert Frost wrote "Pretty things that are well said—it's nice to have them in your head." I have them in my notebooks, but I know what Frost meant.

And so does Mark.