Ice-Cube Zen

I hate being late. I’m pretty sure this dates back to a childhood obsession with “people pleasing” that has carried over into my adult world. Not that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s nice to show up on time — professionally speaking, this is a bonus, and I think when you’re a dinner guest or meeting a friend, promptness is a courtesy we all can appreciate.

The thing is, I’m realizing that my race to get out the door is inhibiting my ability to live in the present. This is a goal of mine, now that I am in a transitional life phase (that sounds ominous; it shouldn’t).  With all of my children no longer children and living primarily on their own, I find that the mental energy I expend during most days centers around work and…work. Again, this is good — from a professional standpoint, I’m being productive and I like to feel as though I’m accomplishing something (again, the people pleasing rears its sometimes ugly head). But the days are whizzing by, and I’m realizing that there is a real peace and satisfaction in sometimes doing and thinking nothing. Well, not nothing, but nothing of consequence.

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh offers practical suggestions for how we become more mindful. One of my favorites:

“While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes, one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

It’s been more than a decade since I first picked up the Zen master’s seminal work, but for some reason, this passage has stayed with me. And I was reminded of it today as I was filling the ice-cube trays.

In our house, this is a job usually reserved for my husband. I can’t give a good reason as to why, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that, well, he just has more patience than I. There are 6 trays in our freezer, and emptying and refilling them all at once takes — oh, I don’t know — maybe 3-4 minutes. In my world, that’s 4 minutes I could otherwise be accomplishing something. But today, armed with a renewed commitment to living presently in the moment, I filled the trays. And while I was filling the trays, I thought of nothing else but filling those trays. Watching the small cavities gradually transform from empty to full was gratifying — A little nugget of momentary peace.  I’ll take it.

Baked Rice Pudding
This dish, in addition to filling your belly with warm, sweet satisfaction, offers good practice in mindfulness and patience, as it requires some babysitting, a little extra TLC, if you will. But oh, it’s worth it.

Ingredients:
4 c. Whole milk (more as needed)
⅓ c. Arborio rice
⅓ c. Sugar
1 T Unsalted butter
½ Cinnamon stick
1 t. Vanilla extract
Zest from one orange
Fine sea salt
Optional: ½ c. dried fruits such as raisins, currants, cherries, etc.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish.

In a saucepan, combine the milk, rice, sugar, butter and cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour into the baking dish and distribute evenly. Bake, stirring with a wooden spoon every 15-20 minutes — this is where the patience part comes in — until the rice is very tender and has absorbed most of the milk, about 1.5 hours.

Remove from the oven and stir in vanilla, orange zest and a pinch of salt (*if you’re adding dried fruit, this is when you’ll want to do that). If the pudding seems too thick, stir in additional milk until you have achieved desired consistency. Spoon into bowls, and enjoy! (makes 4-6 servings)

–Adapted from Comfort Food for Williams-Sonoma (Oxmoor House, 2009).

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My late grandmother, Martha, of blessed memory (“Nanny Martha” to those of us who knew and loved her best) was a dynamo in the kitchen. Not unlike other Eastern European woman of her generation, Martha created meals for her family that were consistently and undeniably delicious. Moreover, her food possessed that unnameable quality– it seemed to ooze warmth, security, love, and basically make everything seem alright with the world. You know what I’m talking about: the kind of food only a grandmother can make.

As the beneficiaries of Nanny’s cooking, my parents, sisters and I were treated to her repertoire of Austro-Hungarian dishes every Thursday night for more years than I can count. There are many stand-outs that will forever be burned in my memory. Her exotic delicacies ran the gamut from tangy, orange Viennese Liptauer spread to melt-in-your mouth German rouladen (beef roll-ups–we called these “schnapper schnitzel”) to her own Americanized version of wiener schnitzel (served with a side of heavily sweetened tomato sauce). On Rosh Hashanah, we all anticipated her flaky apple strudel and Passover‘s moratorium on flour was made all the more bearable with her sticky sweet jelly roll (more on this in a minute).

Nanny Martha was that most confounding of home cooks. Her food was, in a word, spectacular. But ask her how she made any of it, and her answers were often vague.  “Oh you know, a little of this and some of that,” was the typical response. So when Nanny died in 1994, the secrets locked inside all those wonderful meals were lost as well. Many days, when I am in the kitchen, I think of Nanny and summon her memory as inspiration. Recently, I’ve begun experimenting with desserts. Nanny had a sweet tooth, for sure, and I think she would have been proud of my attempts to create sugary happiness — just like she did all those years ago.

My wedding day in 1988. Nanny is on the far left, next to my mother.

One of my favorite quotes from cookbook author and food blogger Molly Wizenberg, captures these sentiments beautifully: “When I walk into my kitchen today, I am not alone. Whether we know it or not, none of us is. We bring fathers and mothers and kitchen tables and every meal we have ever eaten. Food is never just food. It’s a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be.” (from A Homemade Life)

In the absence of any written documentation from Nanny, I searched the internet for a recipe for Jelly Roll that would hopefully do Nanny’s justice and I found this one, courtesy of Paula Deen. Interestingly, she calls this “Old South Jelly Roll Cake” but it could have just as easily originated from Nanny’s kitchen, right here in Baltimore.

Jelly Roll Cake

Ingredients:
4 eggs, separated
3/4 c. vanilla sugar (or you can use regular granulated sugar and add 1 T. vanilla extract)
3/4 c. cake flour, sifted
3/4 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
Confectioner’s sugar, for rolling and dusting
1 c. jam or jelly, stirred well

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a small bowl, beat egg whites until stiff and set aside. In another bowl, beat the egg yolks until light. Gradually add the sugar and vanilla, and mix well. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the sifted flour mixture to the egg yolk mixture. Fold in the egg whites into the egg mixture and pour the batter into a 15 by 10 by 1-inch jelly roll pan lined with waxed or parchment paper. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the cake is golden.

Loosen edges of cake and invert onto a towel dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Gently peel wax paper off cake. Trim 1/4-inch of hard crust off each long side of the jelly roll cake. Begin with the narrow side and roll the cake and towel up together.

Cool cake on rack, seam side down, for 10 to 15 minutes. Once cake has cooled, gently unroll and spread cake with jam or jelly and re-roll. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and slice to serve.

Jelly Roll Cake to make Nanny proud