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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Milk Chocolate Mascarpone Cheesecake

This is yet another cake that we served at Jake and Alice's wedding in June.  This is the best cheesecake--made all the better by the mascarpone. 

Chocolate Crust:
1 cup chocolate wafer crumbs
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Filling: 1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream
6 oz. Milk Chocolate, melted and very warm

 Make Crust: 1. Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350ºF. Butter bottom and side of a 9-inch springform pan. Line bottom of pan with parchment paper round, cut to fit. 2. Place cookies in bowl of food processor and process until finely ground. Add sugar and cocoa and process to blend. Transfer crumbs to medium bowl and stir in melted butter. Press crumbs into bottom of prepared pan and bake for 5 minutes. 3. Place pan on wire rack and cool crust while you prepare filling.

Make Filling: 1. Place cream cheese in bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment; beat on medium speed about until very smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping down sides of bowl as necessary. Gradually add sugar and continue to beat for about 4 minutes, or until well blended. Reduce speed to low and mix in flour, vanilla, mascarpone cheese, eggs and sour cream until blended. Stir 1 cup of cheese mixture into warm melted chocolate. Stir this mixture into remaining cheese mixture until completely blended. 2. Pour batter into cooled crust and smooth top with an offset spatula. 3. Place pan in a large roasting pan. Place pan on rack in oven and pour enough hot water into roasting pan to come halfway up side of springform pan. Bake for 50-60 minutes, until center is set (but still jiggly) and edges are puffed. Run a paring knife around sides of pan to loosen cake. Cool cake completely on wire rack. Chill for at least 2 hours before removing springform pan side to serve.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Choosing a Ketubah

My eldest son recently got married, and the ketubah that they signed, along with the rabbi and two witnesses, was very beautiful. It got me thinking about the everyday beauty that can be brought into a household through their religious and traditional beliefs. The ketubah is the historical marriage contract that Jewish law requires a groom to provide for his bride on their wedding day. It is intended to protect the woman, primarily by establishing the man's financial obligations to her in case of divorce or widowhood. She may be seen to be circling him during the ceremony (a tradition that is often seen as sexist, but one of the non-Jewish wedding guests very aptly characterized as the woman proving that she can run circles around her spouse), but the groom has obligations too. These are on display at the wedding, which is why the artistry of the ketubah has evolved. The exact date when the ketubah became a central part of the Jewish marriage ceremony remains unknown. It is a rabbinic institution, not a biblical one, and goes back to Talmudic times (70-500 C.E.). So not 3500 years old, but old non-the less. Old enough to be written in Aramaic. The test of the ketubah is similar, if not the same the world over, but the decoration of it is up to the individuals. This is the ketubah they chose, and I think it is a particularly beautiful one.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Virtues of Polish Amber

If I were Pablo Neruda I would write on ode to amber. Sadly I lack the succinctness of a poet, and the artistry of the Nobel Prize winner from Peru, so I am working with what I've got, which is a blog post. One of the many wonderful things that I discovered on my recent trip to Eastern Europe (a trip so engrossing for me that I cannot stop writing about it) was amber. The most prevalent color of amber is a warm yellow, but it also comes in green and orange, and it is very pretty. But best of all it is ver light--so you can wear earrings that are a bit bigger than you might otherwise be able to tolerate for an 8 hour day. The Poles not only have mastered the art of amber, they have very attractive jewelry making skills. I bought a necklace and earrings in Krakow, but succombed again in Warsaw because it was so pretty. It is always fun to buy a piece of jewelry on a trip because when you wear it next you remember the place that it comes from, and Poland was a very nice trip indeed.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Green Bean, Red Bean, and Tomato Salad

I know. This is a classic combination. It harkens back to the 1950's, maybe even further back in time than that. But this is no three bean salad out of a jar. You trim the green beans and cook them for 4-5 minutes in boiling water with a little salt. When you drain off the hot water, you run them under icy cold water so they retain their bright green color. Add a can of your favorite bean (red beans, chili beans, whatever you like--but a bean with a creamier consistency, not chick peas), some minced red onions, and as many sliced tomatoes as you want--the proportions depend on individual taste, and just how bountiful a tomato year it is--this is a good year, so lots of tomatoes. Chiffon up whatever herbs you have, at the very least basil and parsley, and toss with a dressing of your choice (my choice was a walnut champagne vinegar with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic-- I don't even bother to mix it, just put equal parts vinegar and oil right onto the salad). Divine....

Friday, July 27, 2012

Allegory of California by Diego Rivera

I was in San Franscisco recently, and was attending a reception at the City Club, which is located in the Stock Exhange building on Sansome. It is a gorgeous Art Deco building with all sort of wonderful decorative details of the era. But the most specatcular--and for me unexpected--thing of all was this fantastic mural by Diego Rivera. He is my favorite muralists and one of the painters who I almost always enjoy his work.
How did this mural come to be there? In it's first life, the room was the lunch room for the Pacific Stock Exchange, which seems an unlikely place for an avowed communist to leave his mark on the United States, but everyone has to earn a living, and in the late 1920's Mexico was not a hospitable place for working artists. Ralph Stackpole, a sculptor, was in charge of the artistry for the Stock Exchange building. Stackpole had become acquainted with Rivera in Paris, and the friendship deepened in 1926 when Stackpole visited Mexico. He greatly admired Rivera's work at the Ministry of Education and at Chapingo, and had bought some of his paintings and taken them home. In 1931, Rivera completed this painting, depicting Califia, and all the bounty of California. Calafia is a fictional warrior queen who ruled over a kingdom of Black women living on the mythical Island of California. The character of Queen Calafia was created by Spanish writer Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo who first introduced her in his popular novel entitled Las sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián), written around 1500. Califia has been depicted as the Spirit of California, and has been the subject of modern-day sculpture, paintings, stories and films; she often figures in the myth of California's origin, symbolizing an untamed and bountiful land prior to European settlement. Something about that appealed to Rivera, and this is the mural to prove it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Vietnam Restaurant, San Francisco

This restaurant is located on Broadway, just east of Stockton. We were staying near Union Square on a recent trip to San Francisco, and walked through Chinatown midmorning en route to Yuet Lee, an old favorite restaruant. But low and behold, it didn't open until 11:30 and we were there almost an hour before that, too hungry to really wait that long before we had some breakfast. After a quick tour through Yelp on what our newaby options were, we came upon this little Vietnames restaurant. We have been marveling at the new found quality of the Banh Mi sandwiches at a local restaurant at home, and decided that we should try them here. Oh my goodness. Absolutely delcious. It kind of ruined the ones we could get locally for awhile, these were so much better. But the best part was that the two women assembling our sandwiches were fantastic. Two people came in to order while we were waiting, and as they were going through the exact ingredients they wanted in their banh mi, the women weighed in--no, you do not want to skip the pate, that is critical, yes you want cilantro, and so on. We got the sandwich they would prefer to eat, and nothing else. Which was pretty great. We ate sitting on a nearby park bench, watching the Bay to Breakers pariticpants run by, and decided that perhaps we need to spend a month in San Francisco once we retire.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cabbage Salad with Pancetta Balsamic Dressing

I had some cabbage from the Farmer's market and I wanted to make something a little different with it. I modified this recipe from the Epicurious web site, and it was delicious--it would work without pancetta as well. The dried fruit adds sweetness, the almonds crunch, and the balsamic vinegar adds flavor complexity, so you could add something else to replace the salt and flavor of the pancetta and be vegetarian.

1/2 cup dried fruit (I used craisins, but current or raisins will do)
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
6 cups thinly sliced cabbage (green or red) 
3-ounce thinly sliced pancetta finely chopped
1/4 c. onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup whole almonds, toasted, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Place cabbage and dried fruit in a bowl; set aside. Heat large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add pancetta; sauté until brown and crisp, about 5 minutes. Add onion to pancetta and drippings in skillet; sauté 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in vinegar and olive oil. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pour pancetta mixture over cabbage and toss to coat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let stand 5 to 10 minutes. Add almonds and parsley; toss to blend.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Synagogue Building Committees: A Polish Perspective

When I was at a now non-functional but beautifully restored yeshiva in Lublin, Poland, I was struck by this picture on the wall. As long as there have been Jews and buildings they have to build as a community, there have been building committees. Our temple is building a new structure (more precisely, we are renovating an existiing structure--it is going from a fitness center to a place of worship--from Gold's Gym to God's Gym), and the process has been time consuming and largely unrewarding. The tensions are, as you would predict, how to stay within budget and yet get the most beautiful place we can manage. The definition of what is affordable is in the eyes of the beholder, and worse yet, what is inconsequential and what is critical is also open to interpreation. My 'must have' is your 'unaffordable extra'. So when I look at this group of somber men, I imagine what they looked like before they were on the building committee--they are all in shorts and T-shirts, sporting tennis racquets, sipping iced tea and living a care free life. No more. The building committee stole all their youthful optimism and turned it into budget cuts, protracted discussions and architect fees.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar

This is a really good book--and deserving of it's place on the New York Times Notable Books of 2011 list (I had been on a streak of reading fiction that I did not feel belonged there, but this ended it). The main, fascinating characters are Araceli and her employers, the perfectionist stay-at-home mother Maureen and her software programmer husband Scott. Scott is a second generation Mexican American who has been living the SoCal dream. He has a family, an enviable house in a good neighborhood and a good job. The problem is that when the economy took a turn downwards, the Torres-Thompson family was caught unawares. They had been living a little above their income, not paying off their credit cards, and employing a gardner, a cook, and a nanny. Suddenly they need to economize. Scott doesn't quite spell out how bad it is to Maureen and Maureen doesn't really know how to juggle financial decisions, and pretty quickly they are in worse shape than when they started to cut back, they are not speaking to each other, they have left the dook in charge of the kids, and unbeknownst to them, neither of them is home. Only Araceli. What happens next is a roller coaster of the life that foreign workers in the US face when one thing sets them off the rails and they have to cope with the political and legal systems as a result. The book is nuanced, filled with striking visual imagery and the deep political rifts that are a real part of America along it's border with Mexico. The Barbarian Nurseries is a must-read, knitting together the wealth and poverty, privilege and furtiveness, fear and joy of living in Southern California today.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Barley Salad with Zucchini, Corn, and Radishes

It is getting to be that time of year when it is impossible to ignore just how much wonderful summer squash there is, but one's ability to whole-heartedly envelope it grilled is starting to wan. It is great that way, but there is so much squash at such a great price, that you really need to eat it several times a week. In addition to breaking out old favorites, I have been trying some new recipes--this is a variation on a salad that I found on a great food blog, 'Big Girls, Small Kitchen'. They have quite a lot of grain based salads that veer away from pasta and potatoes, so well worth exploring their web site!

1 teaspoons salt
1 cup pearl barley
1 cup diced zucchini
1/4 c. finely chopped red onion
2 Tbs. lemon juice
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. adobo from a can of chipotles in adobo sauce
2 teaspoons honey
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup corn kernels, cut from the cob or defrosted frozen
1/4 cup sliced radishes
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish

In a medium stockpot, bring 2 1/2 cups of water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Add the barley and reduce to low heat. Simmer, uncovered, for about 45 minutes, until the barley is al dente. If liquid remians, drain the barley in a colander or use the lid of the pot to strain off any excess moisture. Set aside. Meanwhile, bring another small pot of water to boil and add 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Add the diced zucchini and cook for about 2 minutes, until the zucchini is just cooked. Drain in a colander and shock with cold water. Drain again and set aside. In a salad bowl, whisk together the red onion, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, honey, and adobo. Drizzle in the olive oil, whisking as you go, until the dressing is emulsified. Stir in the cumin and remaining 1 teaspoon of salt. Add the barley, zucchini, corn, radishes, and cilantro and toss to combine. Taste for seasoning, and serve at room temperature, garnished with the extra cilantro. This can be made up to a day in advance and stored in the fridge. Let come to room temp before serving

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Kazimierz Dolny Jewish Cemetery, Poland

The golden age of Kazimierz Dolny ended in February 1656, when Swedish troops under King Charles X Gustav burned and ransacked the town. The number of inhabitants declined, and King John III Sobieski tried to improve the situation, by allowing in 1677 Armenian, Greek and Jewish merchants to settle in Kazimierz Dolny. Meanwhile, the profitable Vistula river trade came to an end, as there was no demand for Polish grains in Western Europe. There were already immigrants in the town by then. A small Jewish community was present in the city from the time of Casimir III the Great in the 14th century. The king granted the Jews a writ of rights which caused the town to become a focal point for Jewish immigration. When John III Sobieski became King in 1674, he granted the Jews of Poland a respite from taxes. Sobieski also reconfirmed for the Jews all the rights they had been granted by previous kings. During his reign, the housing restrictions were abolished and the Jewish community began to flourish again. The Polish kings brought Jews to Poland, but maybe did not make them popular. Like much of Eastern Poland, this small town was half Jewish before WWII. The cemetary here has some very unique styles of grave stones, and despite the occupation of the town by the Nazis, there are quite a few stones that are in excellent condition. There is so little known about the Jewish people who disappeared from Poland in WWII, their cultural differences from region to region, and why their remembrances of their dead were identifiable by region. It reminds me of cloth weavings in Guatemala--you can tell the town of the wearer if you know what you are looking for. I suspect that is true of graves in Poland, from what little I have seen. The stone carvers had their own styles. I wish I knew more about that.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Stuck Between Stations (2011)

The title is not literal, it is metaphorical. The two main characters, Casper (Sam Rosen) and Becky (Zoe Lister-Jones), are drifting a bit. Caspar is an active duty soldier who is on leave from his post in Afghanistan because his father died, and Becky has been having an affair with her thesis advisor--his wife, who is also the department chair, has just found out and taken her laptop computer, which has all her work on it. So they both have issues. They meet up at a bar, and take an overnight jaunt through Minneapolis. It is a gritty 'Before Sunrise' kind of movie. The two went to K-12 school together. Casapr remembers her well--he haad a crush on her, and she mor eor less rebuffed him, despite some pleasant interactions along the way. Becky has definitely seen that post-high school did not afford her with the kind of lavish devotion that men heaped upon her then. Her affair with her professor is only one example of poor sexual choices. After an evening of adventures, htey end up back at Caspar's home growing up, now his because of his father's death. The two talk about a traumatic event that happened to each of them. They both claim to be unaffected by it, Becky even saying that she chose not to be traumatized--but in fact, they are both a bit broken. Caspar won't go into his father's house--he is camping in the back yard. Becky is involved with an emotionally unavailable man who will never leave his wife. The characters make some progress down the road of recovery, but more importantly, the audience is way ahead of them. Very nice debut effort by Brady Kiernan.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Kazimierz Dolny, Poland

We came to Kazimierz Dolny at the very end of our Eastern Europe trip. It is a town dating to the 11th century that is situated on the Lublin plateau. It was last rebuilt in the 16th century and has a wonderful small and quaint feel about it. Geographically it lies on the right bank of the river Vistula on its way to the Baltic. The Vistula is a recurrent theme throughout Poland, and this town is no exception. The thing that is exceptional about this town is that it is populated by artists. Many painters retreat to this small town to paint and sell their work. Galleries line almost every street, where you can find sculpture, stained-glass, and paintings. The outdoor market has people selling traditional Polish folk art at very good prices. This is a wonderful stopping off place if you are traveling through Poland, a good lunch and art gallery walk. I suspect that people vacation here as well, but until I see the Baltic coast line, I am reserving recommendations of where to spend a week relaxing in Poland.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Triple Lemon Cake

This is the cake my blog is named for and this is the cake Jake and Alice chose as their wedding cake--it is a wonderful and beautiful cake!
For the cake:
9-1/4 oz. (2-1/3 cups) cake flour; more for the pans
2-3/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. table salt
1-3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 Tbs. lightly packed finely grated lemon zest
6 oz. (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, completely softened at room temperature; more for the pans
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
 5 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar

 For the filling: 1 recipe Lemon Curd, chilled

 For the frosting:
8 oz. (1 cup) unsalted butter, completely softened at room temperature
2 Tbs. lightly packed finely grated lemon zest
3-1/2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar 3 Tbs. fresh lemon juice

 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Make the cake: Position a rack in the middle of the oven; heat the oven to 350°F. Generously butter and flour two 8 x 2-inch round cake pans. Sift the cake flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium bowl. Pulse 1/4 cup of the sugar with the zest in a food processor until well combined. In a large bowl, beat the butter and lemon sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy (about 1-1/2 minutes). Add the remaining 1-1/2 cups sugar and beat until smooth (about 1-1/2 minutes). Beat in a quarter of the milk just until blended. On low speed, add the flour mixture alternately with the milk in three batches, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula; beat just until blended. In another large bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer (with clean beaters or the whip attachment) on medium speed just until foamy. Add the cream of tartar, increase the speed to medium high, and beat just until the whites form stiff peaks when the beaters are lifted. Add a quarter of the whites to the batter and gently fold them in with a whisk or a rubber spatula; continue to gently fold in the whites, a quarter at a time, being careful not to deflate the mixture. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Smooth the tops with the spatula. Bake until a pick inserted in the centers comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes. Run a table knife around the inside of the pans and carefully invert each cake out onto the rack. Flip them right side up and let cool completely. With the palm of one hand pressed on top of a cake layer, cut each in half horizontally, using a long serrated knife. Put one of the four cake layers on a serving plate, cut side up. With an offset spatula or a table knife, spread a generous 1/3 cup chilled lemon curd on top of the cake layer. Lay another cake layer on top, spread it with another generous 1/3 cup lemon curd, and repeat with the third cake layer, using the last 1/3 cup lemon curd. Top with the fourth cake layer. Make the frosting: In a medium bowl, beat the butter and lemon zest with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the confectioners’ sugar in batches and beat until light and fluffy. Add the lemon juice and beat for 1 minute. (You can make the frosting a couple of hours ahead and keep it, covered, at cool room temperature.) Frost the cake: Up to a few hours before serving, spread a thin layer of frosting on the cake, filling in any gaps as you go. Chill until the frosting firms a bit, about 1/2 hour. (This "crumb coat" will keep crumbs from catching on your spatula and marring the finished cake.) Spread the remaining frosting decoratively over the top and sides of the cake. Scatter with bits of lemon zest and dragees, or garnish as you like.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mademoiselle Chambon (2009)

If you don't like movies with limited dialogue and smoldering emotions, run, do not walk, away from this movie. It is the sort of repressed love story that the French have mastered like no other film culture, and this is a spectacular version of the genre. Characters suppressing volcanic emotions that can be decoded only by reading expressions and body language give the movie a complexity and tension that transcend words--or, if you aren't into that sort of thing, make a trip to the concession stand seem like a good idea. The film examines a possible love affair and its consequences, with three main characters — Jean (Vincent Lindon), a mason; his wife, Anne Marie (Aure Atika), who works in a book factory; and Véronique Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain), their son’s unmarried grammar school teacher. The story is simple. The happily married Jean falls under the spell of Véronique after being invited to the class of his son, Jérémy, to talk about his occupation. Jean’s description to the schoolchildren of how to build a house was a lecture on how to build a comfortable, bourgeois life on a solid foundation, and it captures Véronique's imagination. She starts to look at him in a different way. The same happens for him when later he hears Véronique play the violin. He is transported by the romantic melody by the Hungarian composer Ferenc von Vecsey to a place that he cannot go without the music. They fall for each other--hard--and for reasons of their personalities, not their looks or their money or their status. The complication is that Jean is a traditional family man. He has a wife who is also his friend, a son he adores, and he is devoted to his frail 80-year-old father, whom he visits regularly in a retirement home. So a torrid love affair is not what he was looking for, and once his wife tells him she is again pregnant, he knows in both his heart andhis head that Véronique is not a long term possibility. But boy oh boy does it hurt. A questioning look exchanged and held for a half-second, the trembling of a lower lip, a stride that is a little too purposeful, a conversation that breaks into an uncomfortable silence: these are the signs of potentially life-altering choices and incipient chaos. And Jean's wife sees it as clearly as Jean and Véronique do. There are twists en route to the ending, where the inevitable must happen, reminding one to avoid falling for the impossible choices. Personal upheavals are as consequential in people’s lives as shattering world events--beware.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sholem Aleichem Celebrated in Ukraine

Sholem Aleichem is a pen name. The actual man was named Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich. He was born in the Ukraine town of Pereyaslav and grew up in a densely packed Jewish area. He was a well known author and playwright, and his name is celebrated throughout modern day Ukraine. The musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on his stories about Tevye the Milkman, was the first commercially successful English-language stage production about Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Why is this? Tradition! Maybe it is a way to celebrate a more illustrious past. Lviv is known as a poor but beautiful city in the post-Soviet era. But it has a more glamorous history, and maybe that is what Sholem Aleichem represents. It is their way of saying 'To Life!". It harkens back to a time when Jews abounded on the streets of Ukraine's cities. It is said that Lviv lost 90% of it's population post-WWII. The Poles went back to Poland, the Germans went back to Germany, the Jews that survived went to Israel and the United States, and the Russians moved in. Perhaps they want to remind us that Ukraine was a country where things that mattered were created. Things we know and remember. They are singing 'If I Were a Rich Man' and they want us to sing along.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Chickpea and Green Bean Salad

I almost missed the last of the radishes at the Farmer's Market, but I managed to snag a bunch, and everything else was there. This is a great side salad that could be part of a vegetarian dinner, in that it is quite substantial.
 1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked for 4 to 6 hours or overnight in 3 cups water 
Salt to taste
 1/2-3/4 pound green beans, ends trimmed (I used the higher end)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped chives, or 3 or 4 scallions, chopped
4 radishes, sliced
1/4 cup light mayonnaise, thinned with some chickpea cooking water--you could use yogurt
1 clove of garlic, minced into a paste
 Lemon juice as desired

1. Drain the soaked chickpeas and combine with the water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, add salt to taste, reduce the heat and simmer 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until tender. 2. Steam the beans or blanch in salted boiling water for 4 to 5 minutes, until just tender. Refresh with cold water, drain, break in half or cut into 2-inch lengths and set aside. 3. Place a colander over a bowl and drain the chickpeas. Combine with the beans in a large salad bowl. Add the parsley, chives or scallions, and radishes. Season with fresh lemon juice if desired.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Our Idiot Brother (2011)

The title does not inspire confidence that the movie will have any redeeming value. The cast, on the other hand, includes some of my favorite actors, like Paul Rudd, Steve Coogan, and Zooey Deschanel. I put the movie in my queue because i was sure my kids would enjoy it--sophomoric humor in a movie that did not require one to engage their brain. It has some of those elements, but it includes a bit more. I have been thinking a lot about sibships lately because my eldest son recently got married, and his brothers were all intimately involved in the preparations and the ceremony itself. So I am a little prone to defending the idiot brother just now, is all I am saying. Ned (Paul Rudd) is a laid back guy who is a little naive. He sells marijuana to a uniformed police officer because the guy tells him he's had a hard day and he felt bad for him. He gets predictably arrested and goes to jail for 18 months. Upon his release he finds that his girlfriend is living with someone else and she doesn't want to give him back his dog, either. This is the last straw. Ned loves that dog. Having no job and no roof over his head, he spends time living with each of his sisters throughout the movie. In each case he observes some sort of bad behavior in his sister or their significant other, and in his ever transparent manner, divulges information that ends up upsetting them. Ok, he is not the brightest bulb in the box. He spends zero time thinking through the consequences of his actions. But his sisters blame him for the news. They shoot the messenger. Which is far easier than looking at what they themselves have done. Ned has also proven himself incapable of keeping a secret or tactfully delivering bad news, so the fact they keep updating him on their bad behavior shows additional poor judgement. It is a very funny way to look at what has become a culturally pervasive coping strategy--externalization of blame. It wasn't my fault, it's our idiot brother's fault.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Tovste, Ukraine

We drove from Chortkiv on to Tovste, which is the town that Lisa lived in prior to WWII, and the place she fled to the forest from when the Nazis pushed the Red Army back--the region was invaded by the Russians in 1939, then the Nazis held the region from 1941 until 1944, when the Red Army recaptured the area. The town is now very poor. Our driver, a native Pole, said that it was the most depressing place that he had visited. Which, he was quick to point out, was saying something. So amidst the poverty, we were amazed at the relatively good condition of the Jewish cemetary in Tovste. It was overgrown a bit with grass, but the tombstones themselves were spared being destroyed in a purposeful way (which we saw repeatedly throughout Poland), and had survived the neglect over the years. it was a place that could be fixed up and restored. That was an unexpected and welcome surprise.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake

In honor of my mother's birthday today, I am posting the recipe of her favorite dessert that we served at our son's recent wedding, a cake that we adapted from Martha Stewart. I am going to give the original recipe, but we made it with only four layers--the cake with six is preposterously tall, and the cake is very rich. Even with four layers, the cake can easily be cut into 32 pieces.
 For the Cake
Unsalted butter, room temperature, for pans
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tablepoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
Coarse salt
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups low-fat buttermilk
 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons safflower oil
 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

 For the Caramel:
4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
 2 cups heavy cream
Coarse salt
 2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons

 For the Frosting:
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons Dutch-process cocoa powder
 2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
Coarse salt
1 pound semisweet chocolate, chopped, melted, and cooled

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Make the cake: Butter three 9-inch round cake pans, and dust with flour, tapping out excess. Sift flour, granulated sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and 1 1/2 teaspoons course salt into the bowl of a mixer. Beat on low speed until just combined. Raise speed to medium, and add eggs, buttermilk, 1 1/2 cups warm water, oil, and vanilla. Beat until smooth, about 3 minutes. Divide batter among pans. Bake until cakes are set and a toothpick inserted into the center of each comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Let cool in pans set on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn out cakes onto racks, and let cool completely.

Make the caramel: Combine granulated sugar, corn syrup, and 1/4 cup water in a medium saucepan over high heat. Cook, without stirring, until mixture is dark amber, about 14 minutes. Remove from heat, and carefully pour in cream (mixture will spatter); stir until smooth. Return to heat, and cook until a candy thermometer reaches 238 degrees, about 2 minutes. Pour caramel into a medium bowl, stir in 1 teaspoon coarse salt, and let cool slightly, about 15 minutes. Stir in butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Let cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the frosting: Whisk together cocoa and 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water in a bowl until cocoa dissolves. Beat butter, confectioners' sugar, and a generous pinch of coarse salt in a clean bowl with a mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Gradually beat in melted chocolate and then cocoa mixture until combined. Let stand for 30 minutes before using. Trim tops of cakes using a serrated knife to create a level surface. Cut each in half horizontally to form 2 layers. Transfer 1 layer to a serving platter, and spread 3/4 cup caramel over top. Top with another cake layer, and repeat with remaining caramel and cake layers, leaving top uncovered. Refrigerate until set, about 1 hour. Frost top and sides of cake in a swirling motion. Sprinkle with sea salt. Cook's Note To make this cake ahead of time: The caramel can be refrigerated for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature before using. Cake layers can be refrigerated for up to 3 days (they actually taste better when refrigerated and have a better texture for stacking). When finished, the frosted cake can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Chortkiv, Ukraine

We traveled to Chortkiv while in Ukraine because one of our fellow travelers lived there after WWII. The roads are very good within Lviv and between Lviv and the border. Not so as we traveled eastward in Ukraine. It was much like my experience driving in Costa Rica right after Hurricane Mitch many years ago. There were potholes in the road that you could loose your car in. Driving at night was not an option, as a result. Driving speed was limited by visibility as well. Somehow, through dexterous maneuvering on the part of our driver and frequent questioning of local by our guide, we dound everything we were hoping to see in Chortkiv. The town itself is much changed--while there were two large synagogues in town (both pictured here), they were no longer in use as religious facilities. In 1931, the town had 19,000 inhabitants, 22.8 percent of whom were Ukrainians (Greek Catholics), 46.4 percent of whom were Poles (Roman Catholics), and 30 percent of whom were Jews. Like Lviv, that population has dramatically changed. Unlike Lviv, it is not a charming place to begin with. We did enjoy seeing places from Lisa's youth, even though it wasn't a particularly happy time of life for her.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Jeff Who Lives at Home (2011)

If you think that kids these days are phase delayed, this is the movie for you. Well, you also have to buy into the indie movie themes of family dysfunction and the lack of slickness. Susan Sarandon plays Sharon, a woman worried about her two grownup sons, and with good reason. Pat (Ed Helms) is an obnoxious middle-manager obsessed with status. The film opens with him explaining to his wife how his having bought a Porsche was good for their relationship, while she saw her dream of a starter home fading. Which makes her decidedly unhappy. Jeff (Jason Segel) is the brother who decides not to compete at all. He is an amiable slacker who smokes marijuana, fails to have gainful employment, and who still lives at home. Jeff, strangely enough, is the driving force of this comedy. He believes that everything has meaning. The day the movie largely takes place, Jeff's only task is to get to the hardware store and buy some wood glue to fix the broken kitchen cabinet. This is a high bar for him, as it turns out. Before he manages to get out the door, his day is set in motion by a phoen call for Kevin. Most of us would attribute that to a wrong number, but not Jeff. For Jeff it is a sign, and it drives his entire day. Very fun unfurling of events across all three characters, who come together better for the day they spend together.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Quinoa, Mushroom, and Spinach Salad

3/4 cup quinoa 1 1/4 cups water Salt to taste 1 bag baby spinach, rinsed and dried, or 1/2 bunch spinach, stemmed, washed and dried 6 white or cremini mushrooms, sliced 1/4 cup chopped walnuts 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley 1 ounce feta cheese, crumbled (1/4 cup, optional) For the dressing: 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard 1 small garlic clove, puréed Salt to taste 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1/3 cup buttermilk Freshly ground pepper 1. Place the quinoa in a strainer and rinse several times with cold water. Place in a medium saucepan with 1 1/4 cups water and salt to taste. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer 15 minutes, until the grains display a threadlike spiral and the water is absorbed. Remove from the heat, remove the lid and place a dish towel over the pan, then return the lid to the pan and let sit for 10 minutes or longer undisturbed. Transfer to a salad bowl and fluff with forks. Allow to cool. 2. Add the spinach, mushrooms, walnuts, parsley and optional cheese to the bowl. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and toss with the salad just before serving

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Bukhara Restaurant, Lviv, Ukraine

One great thing about the former Soviet Union (as opposed to a former Easter block country) is that there are vestiges of a multicultural past there. In Lviv, we were fortunate to be able to eat at such a place. Bukhara is a place serving traditional Uzbek food located in the heart of the old city. Immediately upon entering the restaurant you know you are in for a treat. There are tapestries hanging from the walls, the music is decidedly Central Asian, and there isn't a hint of the country that lies just outside the door--you are in Uzbekistan for the time that you are dining. The guidebook noted the option of an English menu, but none was available. We had a translator for the multi-page menu, and we made choices based on what we remembered of what sounded good, but in retrospect I beleive we could have pointed to any number of things on the menu randomly and ended up with a delicious meal because the six of us ordered about 10 dishes to share and they were all phenomenal. I was a little leary of the mutton dishes, but we ordered two because that is what the restaurant is known for. Thank goodness, because they were the very best things we ate--not a hint of gaminess to be tasted. Just rich and complexly flavored meat in wonderful sauces. Hihglights also included the shurpa (mutton soup), cheburek (Uzbek meat pie), pilaf (amazing!) and shashlik. I am ready to travel to Central Asia and eat well.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Women of the Sixth Floor (2011)

The French really have this genre down. They've been making funny and agreeable movie farces for forever, and I for one never tire of it. The access to these films is the reason I faithfully stream Netflix. The film isn’t groundbreaking, profound or unpredictable, and evolves in a conventional way; but it’s light-hearted, pleasant and amusing. It made me smile. This is one of the keys to French comedy success: The film is set in 1962, and it ties some profound themes into the plot – the class division in French society (bourgeois vs. the working class) and the impact of the Spanish Civil War on working-class families – it never delves into them (nor does it really desire to), with the issues providing a context more than affecting the chain of events. On top of that is the social change that is starting to erupt in France. When the film begins, husband and wife Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) and Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain) are more of less complacent in their routine lives. He is a conservative stockbroker who runs a firm founded by his grandfather, and she is a high-strung socialite who is exhausted by days spent going to dressmakers and having lunch. She has lived under the thumb of Jean-Louis' mother, and now she is dead. Time to move on. Or at least redocorate. But Germaine, the French maid, remains fiercely loyal to her original employer, to the point where she is incensed enough to quit. Enter a Spanish maid. Suzanne's friends rave about them. They work all hours, they don't need Sundays off, and they are better workers. The top floor of Suzanne's house is rented out to a clutch of them, and she hired the latest arrival to work for her. Little by little, circumstances make Jean-Louis take notice of all these Spanish women on the sixth floor. "They live above us and we know nothing about them," he marvels to Suzanne, who marvels in turn that a man who never cared about anything is now evincing concern for other human beings. That, of course, is the whole point of what happens on the sixth floor. Almost against his will, this dull man becomes fascinated by the expressive exuberance of these women and finds that nothing can remain the same after he lets them into his life. Not only are Jean-Louis and Suzanne thrilled with Maria, they get sucked in to the culture of the maids. They start to see that they may not have their values quite right, and that realization brings about big changes for both of them. The film is largely light and airy, but it does have these underlying themes that you can wrestle with should you choose to do so. The film doesn't require that of you, which is the genius of the French.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Majestic Hotel, Lviv, Ukraine

This hotel reminds me of the hotels I stayed in when I was in Serbia. The lobby and the general areas of the hotel are lavish, but they are not the least bit reflective of what awaits you in the rooms. It also hints at a past that was grander than what it's present holds. The staircase is the epitomy of regalness. My room was on the third floor, and I used the stairs as much as possible. The elevator was a small unattractive modern affair. Something to be avoided, when the other option was marble floors and rod iron hand rails. But what about the rooms themselves? First off, the standard 'double' room is not big enough to put a third bed into it. There were three of us, and we had had these enormous rooms in Poland that adding a third bed didn't put a serious dent into the space within we had to maneuver. Not so in Lviv. The rooms were tiny and very basic. A Hotel 6 kind of basic. Polyester bed spreads, furniture that had seen better days and was not upscale to begin with, and barely enough room to turn around once you were out of bed. Not the lap of luxury and nothing about the lobby prepares you for that. The dining room and the bar were in between. Not nearly as grand in style as the lobby promises, but not as spartan and worn down as the hotel rooms themselves. The service was exceptionally nice--very attentive, helpful, and warm. As a guest you felt welcome--and well fed at the breakfast buffet (again, not quite up to the standards of our Polish hotels, but very nice). But you leave feeling that the hey day of the hotel was behind it, and hoping that it would regain some of it's glorious past.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Beis Aharon V'Yisrael Synagogue, Lviv

If I thought Poland had few Jews, Ukraine had even less. We stopped at this synagogue, which is beautifully restored, but in many ways lifeless. Instead of congregants, the synagogue has a caretaker. There is indeed a rabbi, and they were very welcoming about letting us tour. The rabbi's wife even invited us to have Shabbat dinner with them if we were going to be in town (which we were not--that would have been a great experience). So they are not stand offish. It is just that they are largely no longer there. Instead there is someone who lives in the synagogue. Which is by no means designed to be a primary abode. There is not even a kitchen--the caretaker has a microwave and a hot plate snuggled behind a partition that functions as their food preparation arena. I did not even ask about showers. I did not want to know. The caretaker lives there and makes sure that the restoration and the building remain safe. It is a weird paradox. There is preservation of the past, but I did not get the sense that it was being done for those who remain in Ukriane. If it was done with that in mind, it is a failure, because the synagogue feels unused, musty, pews pile up in the back never to be unstacked. It accurately reflects the grand past that Jews experienced in Ukraine, but their present there is so sad that it is almost more painful that seeing a ruin.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Rembrandt in America

This exhibit, which I saw in Cleveland and is now in Minneapolis, is well worth traveling to see. It represents the largest collection of Rembransts to ever be exhibited in the United States. Rembrandt was painting shortly after the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, so his work is contemporary with the very early days of American settlement. He is astonishing as a craftsman, and the exhibit showcases that. The biggest of his works are not here--for that you have to go to Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam--but this is an impressive assembly of his work. Why go? It is the volume and variety of paintings that sets this exhibit apart. Amidst the dozens of paintings collected for "Rembrandt in America" it is unavoidable to be astonished by the beauty and the power of the pictures. The portraits are almost 400 years old but they are so vibrant they almost shimmer. The subjects stare out into the room. The effect of those ancient eyes is emotionally unsettling, in a good way. While I was in the museum in Cleveland, I was reminded of the movie 'Maiden Heist'. Even the museum guards are wowed by this exhibit. My mother and I were waiting for my father to catch up with, and I was chatting with a guard--he spent almost a half an hour recounting the history of the exhibit, how it was put together, the three paintings that were in the Cleveland Art Museum's collection, and various things about paintings that we were looking at that were questionable in terms of who painted them--Rembrandt, Rembrandt's studio and students, or someone copying Rembrandt's style. The exhibit is very educational about how to view Rembrandts, what sorts of details he is known for, and why there is so much controversy about the provenance of paintings he may or may not have painted. You leave the exhibit knowing more than you entered it wih, and the number and quality of the paintings is nothing short of magnificent. Don't miss this, wherever you are.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Grateful Dead at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I have been a Dead head since I was 15 years old, when I saw my first show at the Hollywood Bowl,. I saw literally hundreds of shows from that point in 1974 through Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. The Dead fulfilled many roles in my youth. They were a way to see the country. I saw them on the West Coast, the East Coast and many places in the middle. They were the basis of my social life--I traveled with dozens of different people over the years to see them. When I met my spouse, he was wearing a Gratefull Dead shirt and I was on my way to see them in Lewiston, Maine. We had an extra ticket and space in the car, but he declined the invitation to join us--something about having to unload his belongings and return the U-Haul truck he was standing in at the time. Never-the-less, he got swept up in my love of the band, and pretty quickly joined me on the road for tours. It was a culture I belonged to fully. So when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had h Grateful Dead exhibit, my parents felt I needed to see it. I have to say, I was very disappointed. The exhibit does have a lot of memorabilia (see the list below) but somehow it failed to capture what was exciting about the Grateful Dead--I wish they had had a movie running showing different concerts. They do have Elvis movies playing in the exhibit devoted to him, and that would have been a better rendition of what the band was like. But in many ways, the audience was as much of the experience as the band or the music. Art and design have always been closely associated with Grateful Dead, and this exhibit does include a collection of original artwork that is immediately recognizable from the band’s album covers and posters--not enough of it, but some. It features numerous instruments used by the Grateful Dead over the years, including keyboards, drums, percussion, guitars and elements from the legendary Wall of Sound PA system. Additional items include: · Five Jerry Garcia guitars, including his Travis Bean TB5 · Mickey Hart’s custom-painted drum kit · Two Bob Weir guitars, including his first Ibanez “cowboy” custom guitar · Several original lyric manuscripts, including “Truckin’,” “Box of Rain” and “Sugaree” · Several original Grateful Dead-related artworks, including images from Workingman’s Dead, Without a Net and Fillmore Auditorium poster art · Bill Graham’s “Father Time” robe · Four McIntosh MC2300 power amplifiers used on tour by Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia

Monday, July 2, 2012

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

The subtitle of this book is: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. The President referred to is James Garfield. The book chronicles the miracluous rise of a bright and talented man to the presidency, the shooting of him by a probably delusional man, and then the medical mismanagement of his wound that ended in his slow and painful death two months after the shooting. James Garfield grew up on what was then a rural farm outside what is now Cleveland, Ohio. He was the youngest of four children and when his father died when he was two years old, his mother had to sell most of their land to pay his debts and she farmed what was left to provide for her children. It was a poor household, and Garfield didn't have his first pair of shoes until he was four. They valued education, though, and Garfield was a smart and motivated student. It was possible to rise quickly in the ranks in rural America at that time, so while one year he performed janitorial duties to pay for his school tuition, the next year he was a professor. The same metioric rise characterizes his political career. He was a reluctant member of Congress, but took a hiatus to fight in the Civil War--he was a successful battlefield strategist, but the loss of life was something he hated and did not get used to--after the war, he returned to Congress, and it was in his role as an Ohio politician that he gave the nominating speech for a fellow Ohioan for the presidency. Grant was the favored candidate, but Garfield was so elequent that above his protests that he did not want to be president, he was nominated. He had some terrific reforming ideas that were never able to be realized because of his untimely death. A death that the author builds a case for not having had to have happened, if only his physician had been aware of the infection control measures that an English surgeon, Joseph Lister, had been employing with remarkable results for over a decade prior to Garfiled's bullet wound. Additionally, Alexander Graham Bell worked furiously on a device to try to localize the bullet lodged in the President's abdomen, but he wasn't allowed free reign to test it on the President. The author's premise is that a madman shot the president and conservative medical management killed him. Fascinating book, and it made me want to go back the Garfield's historic home and learn more about him.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Seven Piggies Restaurant, Lviv, Ukraine

This is the best traditional Ukranian restaurant that we ate at on our recent trip. The atmosphere is like stepping into a folk tale, so it is doubly good. We had vareniki everyday in Ukraine, and these were absolutely delicious. One of our fellow diners had the suckling pig, and it was moist and flavorful. The soups (garlic soup and borscht) were hearty and delicious. But the funnest part of all was seeing traditional costumes, which are clearly not worn on the streets of Lviv any more--you can buy them in the marketplace, but you have to go to a restaurant to see people wearing them. Highly recommended.