Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween (and a Belated Happy Birthday to Me!)

BOO! And a Happy Halloween to you! Even though Halloween is the favorite holiday at my house, we have been woefully remiss in observing it properly this year. It's not a valid excuse by any means, but I think my birthday (Oct. 26) eclipsed Halloween this year, perhaps because it was the scarier of the two holidays. Yes, yes, my birthday ended in a big OH-NO this year, and I decided to run away and try to hide from it by going to Cape Cod for a long weekend. Since my friends knew that I had a destination birthday in mind for my actual day, the weekend before, they threw a lovely party for me. It was at my friend Lee Ann's new house, and I am pleased to say that, though there were a few sparkly blue "40" decorations dangling from the windows, they kept the imminent death talk to a minimum, and the funereal black motif was (thankfully) abandoned altogether. Instead, in a nod to my love of the Disney princesses, I was celebrated as the "Perfect Princess" (that's what my pink sash said anyway), and I wore both a dazzling tiara and a paper crown made for me by my little friend, K, Lee Ann's daughter. She also made a matching paper ring and bracelet for me, all in shades of yellow to symbolize Belle, my favorite Disney princess. I think the best part of my costume was the secret message that she wrote inside my paper crown. It said, "Go, Gina! Yes!" which I find a very affirming message in my advanced age and decrepitude. ;-)

The party was so touching, because all my friends cooked for me for once, creating a tasty potluck of their best dishes and some of my favorites. And then they put together a little recipe folder with each of the recipes (complete with Disney princess stickers, of course) for me to keep as a memento. There were so many delicious things, but I think my new favorite was a mushroom paté that my friend Judy made as an appetizer to go along with the margaritas! (Tee hee.) For dessert, I had a charming Disney princess cake and also, by special request, two Carvel ice cream cakes--one chocolate and vanilla in the shape of a jack-o-lantern as pictured above (Halloween has always blended into my birthday celebrations, and as long as I don't have to eat black frosting, I'm cool with that), and one small rolled cake that was orange and vanilla (creamsicle is my favorite!). After we ate, we played a new board game that Judy gave me, the Food Lover's Trivia Game, which was pretty tricky, I must say. In fact, my team lost! Boo! There were also many other delightful presents. Among the highlights were Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours (the gift that will keep on giving to my friends!) from Cyd, and many of my other pals chipped in on a photo light box to help me take better pictures for this blog! Wasn't that thoughtful? (Now I just need a decent camera to go with it.)

Then for my big birthday weekend, I took one personal day off of work (how irresponsible!) and headed to Massachusetts. On Friday (my actual birthday), I had originally thought to spend the day on Nantucket as Cyd has never been there, and I spent another magical birthday there about a decade ago (maybe 1998 or 99...old people can't remember things well anymore!). But there is such limited ferry service at this time of year, so we decided to make our way all around the Cape instead. The weather was just gorgeous, and there was still a lot of color on the trees, albeit in a palette of rusts and golds. We had no itinerary which was lovely, and we just stopped when ever we saw something interesting or whenever we got hungry. We bought freshly-picked cranberries from one roadside stand and newly-dug turnips from another. And we met Molly the dog, whose birthday was the same as mine, at the place with the turnips. We also bought tomatoes there, if you can imagine. In fact, on my way to work today, I bought tomatoes and CORN from my local farm stand. Isn't that nuts on the 31st of October?? At least the trick-or-treaters won't have to obscure their fabulous costumes by wearing a coat tonight. ;-)


After touring the cape, all the way to Provincetown and back, we took a luxurious dip in the hotel's pool and hot tub (all for $44/night, I might add--gotta love that "shoulder season!"), and then went to the movie of my choice, which I cannot say enough about, Across the Universe. There are so many movies out right now that I want to see, but I knew this one would never come to my town. My advice to you is, run, do not walk, to see this amazingly theatrical film set in the Vietnam era (but with many contemporary parallels, of course) all told from the lyrics of the Beatles songbook. Love, love, LOVED it! (All you need is...)

The next day, we headed to Salem, where we have been several times, but never in October. This time, we wanted to experience Halloween in its full glory. We were hoping to see real witches and warlocks and/or Goth simulations thereof, but mostly, we saw lots and lots of other tourists and all their kids all converging in a big, cheesy carnival of sorts. No, actually, a literal carnival with a ferris wheel and fried dough and everything! I mean, for crying out loud, you had to wait in line to get into the shops with a bouncer-type doorman over-zealously monitoring the store's maximum capacity. Waiting in line to buy overpriced witch souvenirs? No, thanks. I love Salem, but I think earlier in October would have been ideal, not on the High Holiday Weekend. (Next year, we'll try Sleepy Hollow.)

On Sunday, we made our way home but took the long, scenic route through Vermont. Our plan was to make an appearance at our favorite fall craft fair in Burlington, but it became clear early on that we weren't going to make it there in time. So I exercised my authority as the Birthday Girl and opted for a side trip to King Arthur Flour where I acquired many marvelous things, including some tasty baked goods from their new on-site bakery. Some items were just okay and not worth the steep price (the Danishes, for example), but some were superlative, like the chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons (and I don't even like coconut!), and the loaf of oatmeal cinnamon swirl bread that made the most divine toast imaginable!

Like the rest of our adventure, the food experience there was a bit uneven. On Cape Cod, we went from the world's worst breakfast at a place called Ann and Fran's Kitchen in West Yarmouth (dog food canned hash, burned, poached eggs, burned--how do you BURN poached eggs??--pre-packaged gelatinous yellow goo posing as Hollandaise, all atop mushy English muffins, DISGUSTING!) to the best ice cream in the universe at a new place called Sweet Escapes in Truro. They had an endless list of very inventive flavors like their bestseller, Fig and Lavender, and my new favorite, Mud Flats, which had a very strong coffee base filled with dark chocolate chunks and brownie pieces. Wow! They even had a wine-based sorbet made with cranberry wine from a local vineyard. If you are on the far end of Route 6 on Cape Cod, it is a definitely must-stop destination. Then for dinner in Provincetown, we tried a Portuguese fish shop called Clem & Ursie's that was incredible. They had a Friday night all-you-can-eat fish fry, and we chose their amazing catfish vinho dahlos (marinated in vinegar, garlic, spices and hot peppers before breading and frying) and also the catch of the day which was haddock. Unlike the boldly-flavored, rich and meaty catfish, the haddock was mild and light with just a whisper of a crispy cornmeal crust. Both were dee-licious! But the best part of the meal was dessert. We shared a "lobster tail" from their bakery that was formed from some kind of layered croissant dough or puffed pastry and filled with the most ethereal vanilla pastry cream I have ever had. I am going to have to try and replicate it at home if I can manage it.

For dinner the next night, we made a special trip up to Rowley to check out the Agawam Diner, lauded in last April's issue of Saveur. But I'm sorry to say that we found the food just so-so. Cyd had fried chicken (I liked it better than she did. It had a light cornmeal coating and the meat was juicy and flavorful, but Cyd remained unimpressed.) And I had their famous chicken pie. I thought it was decent, but not magical. And of course, we had some of their homemade pie--two pieces at the diner, and two more to take home. We tried custard, chocolate cream, banana cream, and of course, the coconut cream featured on the cover of the magazine. Overall, the fillings of the pies were quite good, but the toppings were generic and the crusts left much to be desired, in my humble opinion. (Thus endeth the road food review.)

So that very long-winded story (not to mention the midterm crush at school) should reveal why we have had little time to spend on Halloween projects at home. But I couldn't let the holiday slip by without acknowledging it in some (culinary) way. Last night, for my trivia gang, I made the following creepy cookies, which were meant to look like bloody axes (an homage to Lizzie Borden and our summer trip to Fall River, MA). Of course, I searched the entire state of Massachusetts for an ax cookie cutter to no avail. So I found a flag cutter at King Arthur that I thought worked well enough. (And if not, then you could look at it as an edible war protest.) Although it was just a plain sugar cookie, the recipe is a very good one, from the Culinary Institute of America's baking book. Of course, I had to scale the recipe down for home use, but it's definitely a keeper. It makes a sturdy, workable dough and a right tasty cookie that's good even without frosting. Here's the recipe for the cookies, followed by the one for the excellent mushroom pate that I mentioned above.

CIA's 1-2-3 Cookies

2 sticks butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of salt, optional
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour

Cream the butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt (if using) until light and fluffy. Add the egg and mix well. Add the flour all at once and mix until just blended.

Pat the dough into a disk and wrap it in plastic. Chill for one hour before rolling and cutting (using a liberal amount of bench flour). Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees.

To create the drippy "blood" effect, make a simple frosting of powdered sugar, milk, and a splash of lemon juice with lots of red food coloring and perhaps a trace of black. Dip the edges of the cookies into the icing, loading up the top of the "ax" with extra glaze, then tilt the cookie to let it dribble down in a macabre fashion. Let the cookies dry on a piece of waxed paper before packaging them up to take to your Halloween party!

Judy's Mushroom Paté

4 tablespoons butter, divided
8 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1/4 cup scallions, finely chopped
1/3 cup chicken stock
4 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
2 tablespoons chives, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat 2 tablespoons butter. Add mushrooms and sauté
2-3 minutes.
2. Add garlic, scallions, and sauté
1 minute.
3. Add chicken stock and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until all liquid has evaporated.
4. Let cool to room temperature.
5. Combine cream cheese and 2 tablespoons butter.
6. Add mushroom mixture, chives, salt and pepper. Mix well.

Refrigerate and serve with crisp crackers.

3 comments:

Chicken Mama said...

Happy Birthday! I just figured out that you have linked my site, Eastside Farm Chronicles, to your blogsite! Thank you VERY much! Must be a Scorpio thing, this blogging. My birthday is tomorrow!

Randi said...

Happy Belated Birthday!! Sounds like a fun trip. I'm especially envious of the KA flour side trip.

Randi said...

FYI, here is a 35page thread on your new book.

http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showtopic=92574