Sunday, February 25, 2007

AKA Lois Maureen Stapleton is dead

Ugh. Just watched the Oscars. Yawn. Who cares about any of these people at all, having their big love fest on the stage? Weird body shapes and crazy dresses? Ellen not getting any laughs? Listening to another dreadful Randy Newman song that sounds like every other song he’s ever written for every other Pixar film?

During the hours and hours of watching the Academy Awards, I could have done so much else. I suppose it sounds like I’m complaining. I wouldn’t really have suffered through it if I hadn’t derived some pleasure from the experience. And Brad was keen to watch it.

That’s good. It gave me an opportunity to memorize the faces of a few other movie stars who I don’t know. A few years ago, I couldn’t have picked Penelope Cruz out from a lineup of hookers. Still today, I wouldn’t be able to find Sharon Stone in a Swedish restaurant. I know Carol Channing. And Tom Cruise.

Baking while watching the Academy Awards is a good
way to avoid making a
full commitment to the show.

I’m told I don’t like movies.

I know that’s not really true. I find movies to be a great distraction from reality while I’m on a long flight. I peer up at that little screen and catch up on all the films everyone is discussing. In the last month I enjoyed Kevin Costner’s desperation role in the Guardian. I caught some bad movie about kids in prison who play football with the Rock in a shoot-em-up flick called the Gridiron Gang. Was relieved to have an in-flight screening of the Queen, even though the word GOD was bleeped out throughout the film. Must have been edited by religious Jews. And just a week ago, I half-watched the painful-to-watch Man of the Year, starring Mork from Ork.

Now, if that’s not enjoying my movies, then I don’t know what is. I’m pretty sure some others were shown to me, but I don’t remember them.

Brad is responsible for quality control of the Oscar cookies.

Even with all of these 37,000-foot films, I’ve actually entered a theater a number of times in the last month. To see Babel -- because everyone claimed it was good even though it was bad – and Notes on a Scandal, with Judi Dench’s creepy and depressing lesbian character. I enjoyed that one.

Here’s my revelation: it’s not true that I don’t like movies. I’m just not proactive about movies. My favorite films have always been surprises to me -- films I’ve known nothing about, other than a title. To seek out ‘the right movie’ requires reading reviews, which is something I loathe. My definition of an ideal movie experience: I don’t want to know anything about the movie, except whether it will be depressing or whether it will be long. Subtitles are no problem. Neither are actors or subjects.

As you can imagine, this makes me a difficult movie person. I rarely have gotten excited about a movie, called a friend and said, “Hey Mike. Want to go see Nixon?” I wait for that call or suggestion.

But I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to pay attention. I read the copy of OK magazine that was left behind on my flight from Houston to Phoenix a week ago. I learned about dress sizes and who’s dating whom. I’m trying to be much more on top of Hollywood these days. I think it will make me a much better person.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Tofu for you: Medicine Eatstation

Medicine Eatstation. It sounds like a place organized by the Salvation Army for sick children to congregate in a 1940’s war film. I'd rather take Dimetapp than eat here again.

Why are all the foodies in San Francisco lining up to eat at Medicine? This restaurant, which has overhauled its menu about four times, provides a Buddhist vegan dining experience — provided you're not impatient due to the meditative service. And provided that a chunk o' tofu is your idea of a tasty treat.

One dish we got was a block of soft tofu in a small teacup filled with what Brad called dishwater. I prefer to describe it as a very very very very very delicately truffle-essenced rainwater collected from a monk’s 100-year old stone bowl in Tibet. The goal of the dish is to create a flavor that won’t overpower the natural boldness of the soft tofu. Thus, this is a very successful dish for those of us who enjoy plain tofu in its purest form for under $20.

Another dish we had: Jade Nuggets. These are described as “tempura-fried shiso leaves with a filling of mustard flavored natto, a suprise favorite among medicine aficionados.” [I did not correct spelling in that quote from their menu because I am trying to exercise Zen acceptance ever since my last meal here, but figure it must be a surprise to many diners that some dishes actually have more flavor than the tofu in dishwater described above].

The miso soup was artfully fermented using more dishwater and a set of mismatched unwashed socks belonging to an 11-year old boy from Modesto. It speaks to the innocence of youth. The rich flavor can hardly be described, but comes from the foot. The broth contained five perfectly cubed carrots, the squares representing the secret weird Japanese candy we each long for in our broth.

We opted out of the sweetened lima bean dessert. We ate Japanese candy when we got home.

Sorry. I don’t like to sound overly negative. I’m just wary of any supposed Asian restaurant without Asian waiters or chefs. I guess that shouldn’t be a sign, but it often is. I’ve always thought that if I wanted to eat good Thai noodles, I should go to a good Thai restaurant rather than a “Pan Asian” noodle joint where white people create dishes with Asian-inspired ingredients.

At $90, the meal was unsatisfying, unseasoned, and did not provide my body with the sensation of purity and wholeness that is touted by Medicine. A 17 percent service charge is added to the bill so you don’t have to trouble your mind to figure out what gratuity you should leave. I presume wait staff must not receive any of these tips because they are certainly unmotivated to provide the level of service that would warrant a gratuity.

But again, perhaps that’s part of the lesson of Medicine Eatstation. Take your time. Don’t worry about service. Breathe deeply.

Don’t worry that you’re sitting on long uncomfortable benches aside long dining-hall tables for long expanses of time waiting for someone to serve you medicine-flavored food. Enjoy mindful eating. It’s miso soup for the soul.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Caramel cake

Caramel cake. I baked one tonight as a pre-Valentines Day gift for Brad. What a pain in the ass. What is a caramel cake, you ask? Well, although I’m from the South, I only learned about it relatively recently. I was in Memphis for Christmas and discovered that a caramel cake is the God of cakes. A fondant-like heap of brown sugary frosting that covers a bit of white cake. In Memphis, bananas and walnuts had somehow made their way into the cake batter, but as Brad has told me, the right caramel cake is a good buttery white cake with piles of the caramel frosting.

I’m all in favor of a cake that is really about the frosting.

I’d spent about 45 minutes armed with my new candy thermometer, a heavy whisk and a potholder as I swirled the boiling brown sugar and milk in a copper saucepan. A mere 238 degrees was my goal, but the first phase of the frosting seemed endless.

Finally, the right consistency! And at the same moment, my mom called me back because Desperate Housewives was over in Atlanta. We chatted as I tried to explain what I was making and poured the bubbling candy glaze into a mixing bowl. I raised my voice above the engine of the mixer so my mother and I could continue to talk. I tried to turn that caramel into frosting, adding butter and vanilla and a bit of milk. Somehow, it reached the right consistency.

I should pause to make it clear that I am not an expert on caramel cakes. That banana-walnut caramel cake I ate in Memphis is the only one I’ve ever had. I remember the flavor and texture of that frosting and was confident that I had mastered a frosting that somehow duplicated the essence of that frosting. I admit that I had used dark brown sugar, which was probably wrong, but it was all I had.

Chatting away with mom about how it should be pronounced ('ker-ә-mәl instead of 'kär-mәl, as she was pronouncing it), I started to spread the frosting. I poured it on the first layer and, perhaps a big smug, was delighted with how it glided over the cake. I was telling my mother how I actually had baked a big sheet cake and then cut out two heart-shaped layers from it. She asked if it would crumble on the sides where I had made the incision.

I said, “Oh no. It’s perfect. I did such a great a great job.”

I placed the second layer of cake atop the frosted layer and spread more frosting over the two-layer heart. It’s a wonderful frosting: sugary and thick when it first hits the cake, but then settles into a smooth glaze. I started to frost the sides of the cake, listening to my mom give rave reviews of the performance of “Sister Act: the Musical” that she’d seen earlier in the day as part of her birthday celebration with friends.

I interrupted her. “Mom, it’s a mess. The frosting isn’t sticking to the sides of the cake.”

“I was worried it might crumble,” she said. “That’s the problem when you cut a cake and frost it.”

I persisted, beginning to whine to her about the mess I was making. Glops of the caramel frosting were dropping from the cake, tugging the edge of the flawless valentine down with it. I was devastated. I prepared myself, ready to accept an “it’s the thought that counts” fate. I imagined giving two things to Brad: (1) this sad looking almost heart-shaped cake and (2) a long explanation about what I had tried to do, but failed to accomplish.

My mom and I concluded our phone call with the agreement that I would make a simple butter cream and spread that on the sides and it would look fine and taste good and the thought would still be there.

But now that the conversation was over, I began to process the alternatives. And I decided I had to finish the caramel cake with caramel frosting on all sides.

I took the frosting that had crashed off the sides and mixed it with what remained in the mixing bowl and rolled it into a long log. I pressed it between two pieces of plastic Saran Wrap and lay it in the fridge for about three minutes. Then I impatiently pulled it out and wrapped it around the cake — a ribbon of caramel frosting! Triumph! I tucked and prodded and pulled it around the cake. Then I whipped up some butter cream to add decorative edges to the cake. Mission accomplished.

* * *
I just returned home from delivering the pre-Valentines Day cake.
The verdict from Brad: very sweet (yikes), tasty (he had to say that), correct texture of frosting (that’s my assertion), flavor a bit more praline than caramel (that’s Brad’s).

I guess I will have to try again. But I think it was a success for my first attempt. And I won’t be entering the Mississippi State Fair anytime soon.
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