Rain Happened

It’s late summer in Estes Park, Colorado. Smoky haze from surrounding forest fires has begun to subside. Afternoon rain showers precede lower temperatures day and night. A bugling elk was heard from the open window last night. Change of season is near. 

Sunday afternoon. We spontaneously headed into Rocky Mountain National Park. A picnic supper was packed, and we set out to an undetermined location for sunset watching and contemplative time. 

This wasn’t our first venture in improvising an outing at the last minute. But it turned out to be a memorable one.

Moraine Park is a vast landscape with 360-degree wide-angle views. Elk herds typically congregate here during the rut, covering wide swaths of the meadow. It is still early for this so we looked for a scenic place to set up temporary camp.

The Big Thompson River flows east through Moraine Park, gurgling and sparkling and encouraging fishermen to cast lines in late afternoon sun. We spied an empty sandbar and a trail leading there. Pulling over, we walked to the water’s edge. 

The sandbar was wide and pebbled with small and medium sized rocks. Clear, shallow water curled around with soothing sounds. There were tall green reeds on the far side, shining in the sun, waving in the breeze. The river is narrow here but cold, as expected of mountain run off streams.

Green folding camp chairs, a small oak table, a cooler and a basket of food completed the set up. We settled in and began with a toast to the sunset, to the high peaks, to living in such an incredibly beautiful natural environment, and to each other.

Up river from us, backlit by sunlight, a fly fisherman cast again and again. His wet line glistened and lashed out like horizontal lightening. It was perhaps too breezy for trout to bite, but the silhouette of his attempt was lovely.

Husband indulged with homemade pizza taken from the oven just before leaving home. There was farmer’s market arugula as salad on top. And, there was champagne because bubbles create an optimal accompaniment with pizza. [Champagne: “Tasting the Stars”] [Wait Twenty Minutes Then Add Salt] A square of dark bittersweet chocolate accompanied last sips.

Clouds formed between the sinking sun and western mountains. Breezes blew them south and then new ones took their place. We settled in to see what would happen. 

Rain happened. A misty, silky, spotty rain destined to subside quickly. Reluctantly we began to pack up. 

Then, the almost certain finale to showers in the mountains lit up the sky behind us–a full rainbow that touched the meadow on both ends.

There it was–nature’s beautiful end to a serendipitous outing. It gave us more than we expected on a late August evening. 

day is done

Wait Twenty Minutes Then Add Salt

Naples, Italy is the birthplace of pizza. When tomato was added to flat bread in the late 18th century, pizza, as we know it today, was born. If you go to Naples, you will certainly enjoy eating pizza on a cobblestoned street after touring the Amalfi coast and the dusty excavations in Pompeii. Then fly out the next day. Naples is not an easy city.

Pizza ranks high as a favorite food all over the world. You can order in, carry out, or enjoy at your neighborhood spot. However, I don’t eat restaurant pizza anymore, except in Italy, because my husband learned to make perfect pizza dough at home. His finesse began with a not-so-subtle suggestion and a friendship of mine.

My husband enjoys creative time in the kitchen. Not everyday. But when people come to our home he will go to finicky recipe extremes. I call it performance cooking. No one would do this on a daily basis unless highly paid. Guests love it. Each course is beautifully plated and presented with a detailed description of what goes into whatever is being served.

His foray into kitchen time began years ago when we lived in Taiwan. Home dinner parties were an almost every weekend event. This, in contrast to meeting up with friends in fluorescent lit, Formica tabled, disposable chopstick, plastic plate only restaurants circa 1990s.

We did that, too, because the food in Taiwan is freshly prepared and delicious. It was also a no-nonsense way to get the eating chore done. However, it wasn’t a place for long, conversation filled evenings with good wine and food, heavy china, linen napkins, and candles flickering down the middle of the table.

One of our family rituals while the children were growing up was to have a formal Sunday night dinner. Husband­ was in charge of menu planning, shopping and meal prep. I laid the table with the “fancier” china and flatware. Son and daughter were on cleanup and some form of “presentation” as entertainment. Those responsibilities worked some of the time.

My friend, Linda, is a Midwestern born ex-pat who moved to Taipei with her family several years after our arrival. We became fast friends with husbands and children joining in. Linda’s Sunday night family ritual was making homemade pizza. Her youngest daughter liked to participate by carefully rolling out the dough, just so. Her two teenagers would occasionally help with preparation, but often just showed up for the eating part.

When she made pizza for entertaining, I latched right onto my favorite Linda-version. It was always this: the thinnest crust, basil pesto sauce, toasted pine nuts, sliced garlic and fresh chili peppers with grated Parmesan cheese over the top.

Along the way, a quirky tweak was added to her recipe because of an Italian chef named Max, who found himself temporarily employed in a Taipei restaurant. He left Barbados for one year while the hotel where he worked was being renovated. What he loved about the Caribbean was the warm, turquoise colored water and beautiful beaches. Max found Taiwan on a world map and saw it was an island, too. He thought he could happily work and still be near sand and water. The sand and water part didn’t work out. Not much beach in Taipei.

After an evening of cooking, Max enjoyed chatting up lingering late night restaurant customers. When Linda mentioned she often made pizza from scratch at home, he told her the secret for the “best pizza dough”. It was a tip from his Italian mama.

Don’t add salt right away”. Wait at least 20 minutes to let the yeast, sugar and warm water begin their bubbly reaction. Yeast reacts better without salt added until later. It creates more pliable and elastic dough. From a mother in an Italian village, to a beach loving chef in Taiwan, to an American home cook, here was insider pizza chemistry.

Before Linda left Taiwan, I wrote down her dough recipe with Max’s tweak. I’m the basic kind of cook rather than the finicky kind, so it was filed away and several years went by. Children left home. A new job with new geography moved us out of Asia.

With only two at the table, formal Sunday dinner faded away. We ate out more often because it was Europe! Germany! Restaurant atmosphere was charming. And the food didn’t disappoint.   

Sundays in Germany are quiet. Everything closes from Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. Pulling out Linda’s recipe, I waved it in front of my husband and suggested, “We need a new Sunday ritual. I love Linda’s pizza. Why don’t you learn to make it?”

And so, my man began kneading and punching and creating homemade dough with puffs of flour in the air and a rolling pin in hand. Sunday night became Pizza Night. It worked when there was just the two of us. It worked as a night for entertaining guests. It worked as a Christmas Eve meal for a crowd.

From rustic Naples centuries ago, to an ex-pat friendship in Taiwan, to a misplaced Italian chef and his mother, to a man who found contentment in mixing flour, water, yeast and salt into elastic dough, a new family tradition was formed. Linda’s pizza became ours.

We have made it for family, and for people from cultures around the world. In whatever geography we find ourselves, and in the midst of complexity and the rush of life, we always wait twenty minutes. And then add salt.   

MARK’S PIZZA CRUSTS

Yield: 4, 15-inch or 6, 12-inch pizzas

Ingredients:

  • 2 packages active dry yeast 
  • 1 t. sugar
  • 2 C. semolina flour–mix in first [optional, but a good Italian touch]
  • 3 C. all purpose flour, plus more for kneading
  • 2 t. salt
  • Olive oil for coating bowl as dough rises and for pizza pans

Preparation:

  1. Place 2 C. warm water [110-115 degrees F.] in small mixing bowl.
  2. Stir in 1 t. sugar. Then sprinkle in yeast. Stir to combine.
  3. Set aside for at least 20 minutes, letting it expand and bubble.
  4. After 20 minutes, combine flours, salt and yeast mixture in a large bowl. If using semolina flour, stir in first, then add the rest.
  5. When dough becomes difficult to stir with a wooden spoon, turn out of bowl onto a lightly floured smooth surface.
  6. Begin kneading by hand. Add small amounts of flour, as needed, so dough is not sticking to hands and surface.
  7. Knead at least 10 minutes, squeezing and folding dough over on itself, pushing with heels of both hands. I like to pick the dough up and throw it down hard onto kneading surface several times. Husband likes punching it. 
  8. When dough becomes smooth and elastic, form into a ball.
  9. Lightly wipe a large bowl with olive oil. Place dough in bowl. Turn once to coat both sides in oil. Cover with a clean kitchen towel.
  10. Set aside to rise 45 min. to an hour or until doubled in bulk.
  11. Punch down, reshape dough, and cover. Let it rise once or twice more as you wish. It’s not necessary to do multiple risings, but time gives more structure and flavor to the dough.
  12. Preheat oven to 465 degrees F.
  13. Wipe or spray pizza pans lightly with olive oil. Optional to sprinkle pans with semolina flour.
  14. Roll out sections of dough as thinly as possible to fit prepared pans.
  15. Arrange toppings on dough. Less is more with homemade pizza. This keeps crust from becoming soggy and heavy.
  16. Bake in preheated oven to desired doneness. Start checking at 10-12 min. Watch the edges so they don’t get too brown.
  17. Remove from pans and cut into slices. Kitchen scissors work great.

Toppings:  

  • Unlimited variety 
  • Individual preferences rule 
  • Allow guests to create their own pizza topping combination

Toppings and Sauce suggestionslight brushing of red pesto, basil pesto, tomato sauce or olive oil over unbaked dough

  • Thinly sliced [or diced] garlic cloves–always
  • Red pepper flakes or sliced fresh chili peppers–optional
  • Meat–chicken, prosciutto, pepperoni, sausage
  • Or no meat 
  • Roasted vegetables such as eggplant, broccoli or cauliflower 
  • Raw veggies like sweet peppers, mushrooms, black olives, onions or shallots 
  • Toasted pine nuts
  • Anything else
prepared toppings
parmesan cheese, chicken, garlic slices, shallots, feta cheese and mushrooms

Cheese

  • I like freshly grated Parmesan, only, over top of ingredients. 
  • Husband mixes a little fresh buffalo mozzarella, or goat cheese, or mixed grated cheeses with a topping of Parmesan.

Final Flourish:

  • Fresh arugula or baby spinach strewn over cooked pizza adds a bite of salad and green. Add before serving or let people help themselves table side.
  • Champagne is our pizza beverage of choice. There is some kind of chemistry going on there too. In your home, family choice rules.
Santé, cheers, za nas [За нас]


arugula
champagne sipping for assembling and eating

Final Note:

  • Practice makes perfect. Play with proportions until you are comfortable with the sequence of steps. You won’t need a recipe if you make it regularly.
  • This makes a LOT of dough, which is efficient for later use.
  • It freezes well in zip lock bags and thaws easily. Place in refrigerator overnight or on the countertop until soft.
  • Roll out on lightly floured surface and proceed with toppings.
  • Make friends and family happy! Pizza night!
yeast bubbles begin
the next generation of pizza makers

Sex in a Pan

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painting by gustave moreau, french symbolist, 1826-1898

Some “firsts” you remember and others you don’t. I can’t remember my first Sex in a Pan.

Many years ago, I was told Sex in a Pan was for women only. Men don’t like it. It is something you never do alone, always with others, preferably in the afternoon.

Hemingway once said, “Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.” I say, never have Sex in a Pan with anyone you don’t like–at least a little bit. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble?

What’s special about Sex in a Pan? It’s not the equipment, which is ordinary. It’s not the getting ready, which is straightforward. It’s not the result, which is pleasurable. It is when everything comes together.

When we lived in Taiwan, I remember one Sex in a Pan party around my friend Linda’s dining table. The other guests were Asian women who had no idea what to expect. But, as with our American Thanksgiving dinners, they wanted to learn and share new customs. So they joined in…and loved it.

Sex in a Pan is like secretly swiping your finger across a thickly frosted cake. It’s what lingers in the memory after taste melts away. But Sex in a Pan is not cake. It is a decadent dessert of many layers–for sharing.

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The recipe I have carried around the world is in someone else’s handwriting. That well-worn piece of paper is the key to unlocking where I was and who I was with my first time. It’s sadly lost to memory now.

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who wrote this?

So, by default, Sex in a Pan is mine to offer anyone who loves smooth and creamy with some crunchy, slightly sour with some salty, chocolate-y, close your eyes, eat-with-a-spoon-kind-of-fun.

At the Taiwan party, inhibitions were safely shed around the table as we talked of taste and texture and guiltless self-indulgence while eating something pleasurable. There was laughter and letting go among friends. And that, in a nutty crust, is what Sex in a Pan is about.

Recently, I updated the recipe Euro-style since we live in France. The ingredient choices are different. Butter from Normandy embedded with crystals of sea salt, Chantilly whipped crème [from a can] instead of Cool Whip, dark chocolate shaved into curls instead of milk chocolate.

We were four women around the table–two Americans, one French and one German. The other three had little forewarning except I needed help to write a story.

It doesn’t really matter who or how many you gather for Sex in a Pan. Once you invite people in, they are mostly curious, ready to dabble in the unconventionally offbeat, perhaps with a touch of “double sens”, [“double entendre”, which is strangely not the expression in France]. The truth about Sex in a Pan is that what’s in the pan is simply a channel for what happens around it.

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sex in a pan parisian party

In double-sens-speak, I learned that “sensuously seductive” is said to be “croustillante” in French or “eine heisse Affäre” in German. We romanticized taste by describing the salty [yes to French butter!] and crunchy [those pecans!]. Layers of chocolate, sweetened cheese, and fluffy crème mingled in the underbelly. Tiny pellets of chocolate atop hid unexpected softness below. Voilà! Quelle langue!

We sipped Champagne and dipped into the communal dish. Late afternoon gave way to evening. And other liaisons.

When you host a Sex in a Pan party, try to keep the memory alive by having it again…and, then again.

SEX IN A PAN

Ingredients:

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  • 1 C. flour
  • ½ C. butter–best quality salted butter you can find
  • ¾ C. chopped pecans
  • 8 oz. cream cheese [let get to room temperature]
  • 1 C. icing sugar
  • 1 large pkg. instant chocolate pudding [6 ½ C. size]
  • 1 large pkg. instant vanilla pudding [6 ½ C. size]
  • 3 C. cold milk
  • 1 large container Cool Whip [or a good whipped cream]
  • 1 large dark chocolate bar

Preparation:

  1. Mix flour, butter and pecans and press into bottom of 8 1/2 x 11 inch [22 x 28 cm] pan. Bake for 20 minutes, 350 degrees F. [180 C.].
  2. Mix cream cheese and powdered sugar and spread on top of cooled crust.
  3. Spread ½ of Cool Whip or whipped cream over cream cheese layer.
  4. Mix together instant chocolate and vanilla pudding with COLD milk and beat by hand with a whisk until it starts to thicken.
  5. Spread over top of whipped cream.
  6. Spread remaining Cool Whip or whipped cream over pudding.
  7. Shave, grate and chop the chocolate bar. Sprinkle all over the top.
  8. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
  9. Serves 12-15 from one pan, depending on appetites.

Serving:

Pass out spoons, one to a person. Place Sex in a Pan in the middle of the table. In the spirit of communal adventure everyone dips in and eats spoonful by spoonful from the pan. Scoop all the way to the bottom with each bite.

So far, I’ve only known one man who said he enjoyed Sex in a Pan. He was able to rise above the gooey communal aspects others have no taste for. However, let it be known that my brother-in-law, Frank, has a very strong bias for anything chocolate.

Champagne: “Tasting the Stars”

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There is nothing more beautiful than a sunset, viewed over a glass of chilled Champagne. –Jared M. Brown

I only drink Champagne when I am happy and when I am sad.Lily Bollinger

Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.Mark Twain

In the beginning, Champagne was not a wine. It was an area in northern France known for producing fine wool. Scattered vineyards made a bit of wine for local imbibing. It was rough and pinkish brown and bubbles were considered a bad sign. For several centuries there was a lot of sacking, burning and desecration of the region, especially during the Crusades and the 100 Years War.

In the late 1660s, a young Benedictine Monk named Dom Pérignon was assigned to the Abbey d’Hautvillers to bring it back to life and productivity. This meant resurrecting the vineyards.

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Here is where legend and fact collide. Dom Pérignon has been credited for “inventing” champagne. A famous quote speaks of him hailing fellow monks, Come quickly. I’m tasting the stars! But the truth is–Champagne invented itself.

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All wines bubble when grapes are pressed. Yeast cells on the skins mix with sugar in the juice and fermentation begins. But no one knew about yeasts then. Bubbles were considered a flaw of nature. Fizzy wines were unacceptable for Mass.

What Dom Pérignon did do was pave the way for the Champagne industry of today. He set down some “Golden Rules for Winemaking”. Like using only the best grapes and discarding the rest, pruning hard in the spring, harvesting in cool weather, and pressing the grapes very gently, keeping the juices separate with each pressing.

The most important thing he did was blend different grapes. The harmony he created between balance and taste was unequaled at the time. He mixed grapes from different parts of the region–a completely new concept. Myths arose because he was extraordinary, but in actuality he just made better wines than anyone else. He was an innovator and adaptor with keen observation and taste. He started using corks as stoppers rather than wooden pegs. Still, most of the wine he made was red, not white. And definitely not sparkling.

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pinot grapes
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chardonnay grapes

Geographic proximity to Paris [and royalty] further enhanced the region’s reputation. Coronations in the cathedral in Reims featured massive celebrations. Partying Kings and courtiers drank the local wine and decided the erratic tingle in the mouth was rather pleasant. By 1730, Champagne was the beverage throughout European courts.

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chagall stained glass in reims cathedral

Production, however, remained unpredictable. It had either too much or too little fizz. There was also the danger element. Because fermentation inside the bottle was uncontrolled, excessive build up of gas caused unexpected explosions. More than a few people were maimed or killed.

Still, love for Champagne continued to rise in France and throughout Europe.

Napoleon purposefully stopped in Épernay before every military campaign to pick up a supply. In victory I deserve it. In defeat I need it. One time, in a rush, he failed to make the stop. He was on his way to, well…Waterloo.

Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1800s. Louis Pasteur discovered yeast cells. Fermentation became more than a “strange phenomenon” that exploded wine bottles. Wine making took off with newly applied knowledge. Stronger glass bottles, the invention of the wire muzzle and metal foil to hold down corks propelled Champagne’s future.

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champagne leaves in springtime, april 2015

A common consumer complaint was the unpleasant murkiness left inside bottles from dead yeast cells and other byproducts of fermentation. The discovery of disgorging this sediment became the crowning glory to Champagne fame.

Widow Clicquot [of Veuve Clicquot Champagne] and her cellar master experimented with trying to remove the sticky mess. He cut holes into the widow’s wooden kitchen table and inserted the bottles upside down, suspended by their necks. Periodic twisting and shaking dislodged the sludge and moved it gradually toward the cork. When the cork was pulled, sediment shot out leaving most of the wine and bubbles. Topped off, re-corked, and it was ready to ship. The secret leaked. An industry took off.

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champagne countryside, fall 2015

During WWII, most of France’s wine stock was hidden behind false walls to offset German demand for shipments home. Winston Churchill, a notorious Champagne consumer declared, “Remember Gentlemen, it is not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne! His admiration for U.S. President Roosevelt was immortalized in this simile, “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.”

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undulating symmetry, post harvest, fall 2015

Post-war, vineyards not destroyed were massively re-organized. Numbers of vines were reduced. Replanting in symmetrically ordered rows, rather than haphazardly as in the past, became the norm. Grapes were matched to the soil and climate. The combination of ancient chalky soil, harsh northern weather, and unreliable harvests created a system for blending grapes from current and past years. All fine Champagne is now made from blending three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Exceptions are Blanc de Blancs which is 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs which is 100% Pinot Noir.

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blanc de blancs
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blanc de noirs

My love for Champagne came about later in life. In my 20s, California sparkling wine was the perfect storm for a day-after headache. During fifteen years of living in Asia we drank Champagne only once–on New Year’s Eve of the millennium. In Germany we sipped Sekt, the sparkling apéro-of-choice at social gatherings. But we never drank it at home. Only when we moved to France did bubbly wine shift from infrequent tasting to delight.

In Paris, Champagne was the only beverage served as an aperitif, day or night. It was light, refreshing, delicious, and trés French, of course. We began making weekend trips to Reims and Épernay, the co-capitals of Champagne region, to sample and learn more.

Some people consume Champagne only on special occasions–weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, retirements, christenings, or at midnight on December 31. We live outside of that box now. When home in France, Champagne is often our white-wine-of-choice.

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Good Champagne doesn’t have to be expensive. Épernay excursions led us to small producers who sell directly to the consumer. Delicious bubbly can be purchased for less than $20.00 a bottle.

Pairing Champagne with food often surprises. Strawberries and chocolate are cliché. Pizza happens to be a perfect chemistry match. On homemade pizza night we begin by uncorking something to sip while we cook. Glasses are refilled table side when we sit down to eat.

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classic pairing
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surprise pairing

Sparkling wine produced in other countries–German Sekt, Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, and California are runners-up to Champagne. They aren’t bad, just not the same. When you uncork a bottle of Champagne, for whatever occasion, raise your glass to Dom Pérignon. Then enjoy “tasting the stars”.

My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink more Champagne. –John Keynes

I’m not planning to have that regret.

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fall in champagne, 2015