Thursday, January 29, 2015

Youngstown Gets More Lit

There's a new organization for the literary arts in Youngstown! Lit Youngstown is up and running with a slate of spring workshops, a monthly reading series, and an online poetry book club.

The spring classes include workshops on song writing, writing prose poetry and a prose writers roundtable, and the art of storytelling. All sessions begin in March. Enrollment  is open and will stay open until classes are filled. Reserve your seat here.

Our monthly first Wed. readings will begin in March with the Fallen City Writers and their new anthology, followed by a moderated open mic. We’re thrilled to be hosted by Suzie’s Dogs & Drafts, a big-hearted downtown joint. This anthology is terrific and includes some of the icons of the Youngstown writing scene, as well as more recent arrivals.

Fallen City Writers and Open Mic
Wed. March 4, 7:00
Suzie’s Dogs & Drafts, 32 N. Phelps

Kickstand Poetry is the online poetry book group. I love talking about the books I read, and I think a lot of people, even writers, don’t have a way of keeping up with contemporary poetry. There is some phenomenal work being published these days by wonderful presses, and I think that’s worth supporting and talking about. Our first book will be Kimberly Johnson's Uncommon Prayer (Persea Books 2014).

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Yumful and Worth Sharing: Four Fruit Desserts

Fruit desserts are so lovely, no? Moist and texture-ful. I am avoiding cans, because of BPA concerns, so I’ve switched to fresh pineapple, even though I can’t crush it fully and it ends up uneven. Yum. I love running into a big toothful, and none of that tinny taste. And leftovers!

A friend recently called me out for avoiding BPA, but not worrying about refined sugar and flour. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. A small justification is that I use organic flour and sugar, and only take desserts to occasions, so we can spread around the wickedness. If I bring a dessert to your house does it mean I am trying to poison you? Non, mon amour. Non. 

I keep forgetting to take photos, but I will work on that. 

Carrot Pineapple Cake

2 c. sugar
3 eggs
1 ½ c. oil
1 tsp. vanilla
2 c. grated carrots
1 c. crushed pineapple, undrained
2 ½ c. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
½ tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour 10” tube pan. Combine sugar, eggs, oil and vanilla. Beat well. Stir in carrots and pineapple. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Blend with other ingredients. Pour into pan. Bake 60-70 min. or until cake tester comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 min. Loosen edges and turn out on rack for cooling.

This recipe came from the Oshkosh Northwestern, and is attributed to Brad Storey. Thanks, Brad! That name sounds so familiar. Did I work with Brad at the Oshkosh Public Library?

Cranberry Pie

Double pie crust, all butter
1 package cranberries fresh or frozen
1 c. sugar
½ c. brown sugar
½ c. flour
1 c. walnuts, chopped
1 T. butter

Wash berries. Drain. Mix with sugars, flour and nuts. Pour into unbaked pie shell and dot with butter. Cover with top crust. Slit and sprinkle with sugar. Bake 375 for 45 min.

Because I took this to a holiday party, I cut stars out of the top crust and arranged them around the star-shaped holes. I like to brush the crust with milk before sprinkling large crystal sugar on the crust. It’s a simple way to make it look elegant.

I took this to a potluck, and I was a little worried about a pie that had only cranberries. I threw in a chopped ripe pear, and it added a lovely background flavor and texture, and took on the pink from the cranberries. However, I needn’t have worried.

This recipe was included in my Wisconsin Public Service gas bill. Each month they sent a different recipe, and wow, so good.

Plum Upside-Down Cake

Pineapple is great but something of a cliché in this arrangement, so I wanted something more unexpected. Plums are gorgeous in desserts. Really any ripe fruit would work here, as would any type of nut. One thing I like about this recipe is that the topping is more caramelly than saucy. And buttermilk antes up the goodness. Use real buttermilk, with as few additives as you can find. Alternatively, substitute plain yogurt thinned with milk.

¼ c. butter, plus ½ c., softened
¾ c. brown sugar
2 c. sliced, ripe plums in season
1 c. sugar
½ c. sliced almonds
2 eggs
2 c. cake flour (or all purpose flour minus 2 T. per cup)
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
¾ c. plus 2 T. buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla

Place rack in bottom third of oven; heat oven to 350. Butter only sides of 9” round cake pan.

In saucepan, melt ¼ c. butter over medium heat. Stir in brown sugar; cook, stirring, until sugar is melted and mixture is smooth, 2 min. Immediately pour into prepared baking pan and spread to coat bottom evenly. Place plums in decorative pattern on top of sugar mixture; press down lightly. Sprinkle with almonds.

In large bowl, beat ½ c. butter until smooth and creamy. Gradually beat in granulated sugar until light and fluffy, 2 min., scrape down sides of bowl. Beat in eggs.

Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. On low speed, beat flour mixture alternately with buttermilk and vanilla into butter mixture, beginning and ending with flour; scrape down sides of bowl. Spoon batter over fruit in pan.

Bake until cake springs back lightly when pressed in center and cake tester comes out clean, 45-55 min. Immediately run knife around outside edge of cake and invert onto platter. Let stand 5 min. with pan in place. Remove pan and serve cake warm or at room temperature.

I took this to friends’ for dinner, unbaked, and it baked while we dined, so by the time it came out, we were ready for dessert. Great for chilly nights like we’re having just now in Ohio, though obviously plums are not in season.

The recipe is adapted from an original in Tastes of Home.

A lot of our favorite recipes were developed in a time when ingredients were different. I don’t know how much people realize that manufacturing and marketing drive what we might think of as traditional. At least in this country, “traditional” is a fluid concept. As we continue to encounter the aforementioned health effects of eating so much sugar and refined flour, we will begin to see recipes adapt. Dropping whole wheat flour into a recipe balanced for “regular” white flour, for example, doesn’t work. But here’s a recipe made for whole wheat, and it’s amazing. I look forward to seeing more of these, and more recipes that lead us away from refined sugar and more toward less sweet desserts, and desserts sweetened with honey and fruit.

Pumpkin Muffins

1 c. whole wheat flour
1 tsp. pumpkin pie spice
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 c. brown sugar
¼ c. oil
15 oz. pumpkin
2 eggs
1 c. granola

Preheat oven to 350. Paper-line or grease mini (or any) muffin tins. (I prefer to grease the tin, which reduces waste and also allows the muffin to develop a lovely, non-steamed crust.) Add pumpkin and eggs; beat well. Gradually stir in flour mixture. Spoon batter into tins, 2/3 full. Sprinkle each with ½ tsp. granola (for minis; more for big ones). Bake 15-20 min. or until tester comes out clean. Cool in pans 10 min.; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

The granola I had on hand was date-pecan. Topping a dessert with something sweet can work in reducing the overall amount of sugar within. I saved most of them for an event, but the ones we snarfed right out of the oven were worth the mouth burn.

I had used part of a can of pumpkin for something else, so to get back to the 15 oz. I cooked down a few apples that were one step away from compost. I couldn’t find pumpkin in a jar, but I wonder if I could find it in the frozen section. Some years I’ve cooked down pie pumpkins and found they work best if I drain the puree overnight in a cheesecloth-lined strainer. I love cooking and baking with fruits grown by my Ohio neighbors.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Wouldn't Time Machine to Pre-Nextflix World: 2014 Favorite Books and Films

I’ve enjoyed perusing the circulating lists of bests of 2014. I’ve had the opportunity to consume quite a few books and movies this past year, perhaps partly due to breaking a couple bones as summer approached, which caused me to swap out gardening for more intellectual pursuits. 

I don’t remember where I first heard someone say that her measure of mortality was the small number of books she would have time left to read. So maybe taking stock is working toward some kind of immortality. With that, I’ll toss in my list of favorites, in reverse chronological order of when I read them.


For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
I listened to this book on CD, and was so taken with it. I’m striving to fill in my knowledge gaps. I was an exchange student in the south of Spain in 1977, a few years after the death of Franco, and wish I had been more prepared to understand what I was seeing. The characters in this story are so fleshed out, it seems like I may have crossed paths with them on the cobblestone streets. Hemingway’s famously spare language zings with beauty.

Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks
I listened to this book as well, and enjoyed the performance of many voices. The narrator, Bethia, is an intelligent, sensitive young colonist, a product of her times who yearns to transcend her times.
Here is an excellent review by Jane Smiley. 

American Dervish, Steven Reese
Poet Steve Reese sets American history and culture in motion in this engaging and skillfully written collection. I particularly loved the tender poems on domestic life, but each poem is excellent and inspires re-reading.

Through the Children’s Gate, Adam Gopnik
Another view of American life, this time in essays through the lens of a young family returning from France. Gopnik is witty, practical and a wonderful storyteller.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel
This was one of those rare books that made me ruminate over it all day, waiting until I could jump into bed to read. A riveting story on a teeny tiny stage. So impressive. I have not yet seen the movie.

The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
A book that kept me awake when I read at night, and it should keep all of us awake until we take action to make our justice system fair and accountable. Alexander weaves stories into her well argued research, making it readable, compelling and essential. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t be afraid. Dive in. You’ll be glad you did.


Inequality for All (2013)
One of our favorite public intellectuals, economist Robert Reich, outlines the specific policies that have led to the hollowing out of the middle class. It’s a great film because it’s clear and concise, because Reich himself has a wonderful wit and humanity, and because he’s not pitching the issue to the political left. He demonstrates that inequality this severe undermines everyone.

Living Downstream (2010)
I first read Sandra Steingraber’s book of the same name shortly after it came out in the late 90’s. A professor of urban planning gave it to me, saying it was written by a scientist and poet, and the language was as gorgeous as it was investigative and important. I have gifted this book to many, and was thrilled to discover this film, which takes up where the book left off. Steingraber is so compelling in part because she has a brilliant and curious mind, a fierce morality and a deep compassion for people. Her tools of persuasion are stories and scientific data, explained well.

Ken Burns: The Address (2014)
In Vermont, there is a boarding school for boys with neurological anomalies. The boys often arrive after suffering through horrendous public school experiences, so there may be psychological healing as well as learning how to learn. The boys are challenged to memorize the Gettysburg Address, and Ken Burns uses this as the backdrop for his documentary on this famous speech. As we see these students struggle and overcome, as well as learn to care for each other and themselves, well, I won’t say “we.” I’ll just say I cried like a baby. It was even more meaningful since I saw Ken Burns speak at Kent State this year.

A Raisin in the Sun (2008)
This remake is powerful and engaging, and enlightening for those who didn't live through the mid-20th century. The cast is tremendous, including a commanding Phylicia Rashad.

Planet of Snail (2011)
I’m not sure how this movie came to be on my Netflix queue, and at the beginning I thought it was a drama. But it’s a documentary about a poet in China who is deaf and blind. He lives with his wife, a small woman with a back deformity. It’s a tender yet clear-eyed look at their life together, shot through with humor and grief. I love it when foreign films are subtitled and not dubbed. I want to hear their own voices.

When the Levees Broke (2006)
Spike Lee’s appropriately blistering account of the savage way stranded survivors of Hurricane Katrina were treated. Again, it will be hard to watch, but if we didn’t have to live it, that seems like a small thing to ask.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008)
So sweet and charming, and nice to see Frances McDormond get a day off from Nazis and serial killers. Amy Adams, too. Wow.

The Other F Word (2011)
I lived through the age of punk rock but was completely unaware of it, so I don’t connect musically with these rockers who are now dads. But I loved this documentary that does a little exploration into their lives to uncover why they were so rebellious, and what they’re going to do with all that rebellion now that small people are looking to them for all the answers.