The Cold Season And A Black Sesame Caramel Tart

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The frost is on the leaves, the leaves are on the ground, and bare branches begin to pierce the clear, cold sky. I saw my first French chickadee this morning. They’re fatter than the chickadees I have known in Arizona mountains and New England woodlands. It must be all the cheese. 😉

Oh wait, it’s just me that dosing on delicious French dairy these days. If you live near a decent cheese shop, go ask for roquefort, morbier, and tomme catalan straightaway. Eat the roquefort with golden delicious apples, the morbier with grilled mushrooms, and the tomme catalan with quince jelly and toasted almonds.

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I’m a bit giddy and heady these days. Happy Thanksgiving and Chanukah, by the way, to all the other Americans and Jews out there. In lieu of celebrating proper Thanksgiving today, I’m commemorating my own favorite version of the holiday this weekend: Friendsgiving! It’s Thanksgiving with your friends, when you want, how you want, in whatever country you want, and one step further removed from the massacre of America’s indigenous people that Thanksgiving so handily sweeps under the rug. Hehe.

And then I am heading into a week of retreat at Kundreul Ling, the monastic sister center of the Buddhist center where I live. And then I’m heading to Bordeaux to get my visa properly validated. And then to Paris to visit my French family, the incredible people who put up with me when I was a headstrong, naive teenager (now I’m a headstrong, moderately-less naive young adult…it makes all the difference). And then to Cal-i-for-nigh-ay to visit my actual family.

For all my heartache and sadness and frustration, I am very, very happy to get to see my family. My faaaamily. My fambly. The folks who hold my heart close to their own, who have done so as long as I’ve been present in this world. The folks who know what I like to eat on Christmas morning, what the feel of sand under my toes does for me on blue days, what color shoes to get (and not to get) me for Christmas. Who know to look for good museum shows when I’m in town, to plan our schedules around the restaurants we want to try, and to not hesitate to invite me to this year’s super cheesy, hilarious kids Christmas movie (but only if it’s animated).

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When the weather gets cold and the air smells like ice, I start to think of things like hearth fires and the scent of cinnamon. These things are awesome, but they are also mostly cultural proxies drilled into me by American holiday culture. What all that actually stands for is the comfort of home, wherever that may be.

I am lucky to have and have known many loving homes in this life. Home is the invisible ties to the people who color my life. It is profound love expressed through the everyday. Cinnamon is cozy and I’m as much a sucker for that as every other American, but actually, the taste of black sesame renders me much more nostalgic. Not homesick but home-well, heart-happy, for memories of basement Chinese restaurants, my mom’s favorite brittle candy, sharing chocolate halvah with my dad, and not wanting to say the word “furikake” (my favorite condiment on earth; comprised of salt, sugar, seaweed, and sesame) at four years old because it sounded too much like “kaka.” Oh yes, I was refined as a toddler.

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Enough years in the woods has worn down my modesty for bodily-functions, but I try to keep my culinary tastes at least a little refined. Though I can’t deny having a serious weakness for snack food; in France we have these peanut flavored corn puffs that are basically like peanut-butter flavored Cheetos, which sounds weird, but is actually delicious and addictive. Ahem, anyway, all that to say that, unlike my strange ramblings today, the recipe that follows is reliable, sophisticated, and complex. It’s a bit of East-meets-West, which I guess I am too, with Oriental flavors of black sesame and orange flower meeting classic French caramel and flaky pastry crust. While the feeling of home this tart brings about may be particular to me, its deliciousness expresses love under any roof.

Recipe follows…

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This Is To Say That I Am Surviving, And Also Thank You Times A Lot

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I made the pumpkin scones. And they were cute, though I’m not going to bother you with the recipe. I’m still on the hunt for perfect pumpkin scones…scones to bring me back to the Greenmarket on Union Square circa 2007, scones bursting with golden raisins, pecans, crystallized ginger and pure, unadulterated autumn. If you have any leads, I’m open. And um, also, I can only say that I must be doing better if I can soliloquize my thoughts on scones rather than torrenting anguish all over the place.

Better is a relative term. I am considerably less miserable this week than last. A lot of lucky stars are being thanked. Do I think it will last? Nothing lasts–who even came up with that question? But I have a learned a few useful things.

For instance, even though change (read: unwanted, highly undesired, horribly unwelcome change) is a major bitch, there are things that help. All you people coming out of the woodworks to tell me your stories, say that you hear me, and send so much love–that does wonders. Also, crawling out of my small hovel of personal anguish to actually talk to my family, to tell them I love them, to commiserate that things are weird and messed-up but also necessary–that does wonders too. Nobody’s doing marvelously. And we’re not together physically, or legally, or emotionally in ways we have been in the past. But we are in this together, and we are all surviving.

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Making space for new understanding in this cramped-up body and brain is no easy thing. But letting go is the lesson of the day, and that does nothing if not make space. I was hoping to say something profound about the moon and changing times, but mostly I’m just grateful to be getting by, grateful for your care, and making wishes to be as vast and open as the sky, that no amount of anguish can knock me down ‘cuz the impact blows right through. One of these days, yo’, one of these days…

Amazing Grace

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Sometimes, it’s Saturday, and you go into the kitchen thinking you’ll bake pumpkin scones, but there is someone there who asks you how your days have been and when you say, a few things have been difficult, he says, “But you know, you can take that as an instruction, a way to grow,” and you say, “I do know” and then you walk out the door before he or you can say anything else, because sometimes it’s better that way.

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Sometimes you stay up late, go to a chateau, drink mulled wine, and try to dance your sadness away. But it doesn’t go, and the wine doesn’t help, nor the truffles, nor the pumpkin flan, nor the smiles of the boys who are in fact men, who are your friends, your family now, who would help if they could but they can’t. So you take yourself away and sing Amazing Grace on your knees in the tiny old chapel next door where the sound of your voice resounds like a bell, a plea, a supplication, but there is no one to hear you but yourself.

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Sometimes you are an adult and your parents decide to divorce and you feel like a child even though you have told yourself it will be a relief after all of these years of unspoken indecision. Sometimes you want a thing to hold you solid and secure, and you want that thing to be your family, the one you knew when you were a child, the one that made you, body and bones and tears and sweat and sadness. And even though you know that nothing lasts, and that this is the most amazing grace of life, as much as its biggest burden, you want this thing to last.

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But it is no thing, and it never was. A collection of pieces cobbled together and held in place for a certain time by a certain stickiness of needs and wants and loves and histories and hopes. But the glue comes undone and the cobwebs fall down and all of the spiders have new homes or are dead and dry in the corners of the house where no one now lives. And your family is still your family, but you are not together; you are pieces, and in pieces, because each of you has pieces of the others, but you have taken them with you, and they have taken theirs with them, and now they are scattered the world over and snagged on broken phone lines of miscommunication and disappointed expectations, and you do not expect to get them back, but you do not know, either, what to do with the spaces left behind.

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So you take pictures of the living room in a house that you don’t live but you do run. And you make jokes with a new family, a different kind, about the mulled wine and the broken couch, and the bag of flour spilled on the floor. And you don’t forsake your old family, but you don’t know what to call it anymore either. So you call them on the phone, and sometimes you let your sadness show and sometimes you don’t, and you tell yourself you will make pumpkin scones tomorrow, and maybe that will help. And maybe it will, and maybe it won’t, but nothing lasts after all and this is the most amazing grace of life as much as its biggest burden and you will live with it and let yourself learn to grow, because this is what there is to do.

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Cultural Exchange And The Well-Made Cookie, Pignoli Shortbread For Today

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Tonight I got to see, to share, and to partake of, a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Simple, beautiful, nuanced. The silk cloth to purify the utensils. The tiny pot of sugar crystals formed just so. The fluorescent mound of tea powder. The puffy bamboo brush-whisk and the froth of foam in the bowl, whirled just so.

The tea was bitter without being harsh, smooth on my tongue and soothing. I found myself a guest of my own guests, being served in the salon of the Lama House by visiting teachers for whom I have been cooking. They offered the tea as a thank-you for the meals we’ve been making, and even made special mention of the desserts, which I’ve been handling this weekend.

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It seems surreal to me that the simple fact of a chocolate tart or a pumpkin pie, a drizzle of caramel or a mouthful of almond praline, can make any difference in the vastness of this world. And yet, when you find your American self sharing tea with a roomful of Japanese artists in the countryside in France, bonding through some blessed meeting of modern baked goods, ancient art forms, and timeless philosophy, you can’t help but consider that a well-made cookie might be worth more than you thought it was.

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Big-Girl Pants And Blessed Leftovers Tart

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All of a sudden, I’m in charge of things. Though the official decree hasn’t come down the official chain of communication, in real world terms, I am now co-responsible for the workings of the Lama House kitchen. And since my other half is in Germany for nigh on three weeks, and three master teachers are cruising into town with their entourages next weekend, that makes now, officially, the time to put on my big-girl pants. I may or may not be currently wearing pastel-colored leggings with pictures of pine trees and the Northern Lights on them. Grown-up is a state of mind, right?

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I can make an Excel spreadsheet just as well while wearing tree pictures as any fool in a two-piece suit. This is what I tell myself and this is my goal. I am writing menus, planning purchasing, connecting with my team, staying in contact with the event organizers, and devising ingenious plans for how to cook food for ten people in a kitchen that sometimes struggles to feed two. When you have an oven the size of a postage stamp that only heats on one level, things cooked in pots are your friend.

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In between sending out Google drive links and peeling a crap ton of shallots, I am still making time to attend rituals, practice keeping up with prayers in Tibetan, and, ya know, make pie. We’ve had a real string of ceremonies lately, which makes for a lot of blessed snack food hanging around the center.

While the chocolate, cookies, cheese, and crackers go pretty quickly, I guess people aren’t that hot on raisin medley or melba toast. However, these same items become magical when combined appropriately with a good dose of strawberry jam and some puff pastry. There may be a small quantity of butter and sugar involved as well. And even if your ingredients aren’t blessed, I’d wager you’ll feel a good deal of benediction when you bite into this. It’s a winner.

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