My friend Autumn recently pointed out an article in The New York Times all about living alone. Not like me in my city apartment, but like folks who choose to be fiercely independent and move somewhere isolated where they can truly be away from it all. The author, Sarah Maslin Nir, profiles three individuals (all men, interestingly enough) and discusses their compulsion to live in isolation. One man describes a feeling of freedom when you’re by yourself: “you don’t have to answer to anybody.” There’s also a feeling of self-sufficiency. Others choose a reclusive lifestyle as a political statement. A 27-year-old British man spent the last year living in a hut he built in Sweden as a way of being environmentally responsible. Regardless of the justification (and I suppose there doesn’t really need to be one) “Embracing the Life of Solitude” made me really think about what it means to deliberately choose to be by yourself.
Now that desire for extreme solitude isn’t a feeling I can relate to. While I am enjoying living alone, I will ultimately want someone to share moments with. But I will say that lately I’ve surprised myself. I haven’t freaked out (totally) like I thought I would and I haven’t hid in bed with the curtains drawn. When I’m here in the apartment I often turn on the TV for background noise, touch base with friends and family on the phone, and have a pretty deliberately jam-packed calendar. So solitude it’s not. But I kind of like the small changes that I’ve discovered in the cadence of my days: I go to bed later for some strange reason, I’m reading much more, making tea and sitting on my little stoop, chatting with my neighbors and not rushing home right after work, meeting up with new friends and being more spontaneous. All good things. Oh, and yes, I’ve been known to throw in the towel and eat pudding for dinner. I can’t recommend it enough. When you’re inclined to throw in the towel–whether it’s choosing a summer of solitude or eating a Southern dessert for dinner (and then breakfast the next morning), I’d say by all means. Because –at least for me– there’s no one around to tell you not to or to judge the nutritional composition of your dinner. It doesn’t matter if it sounds good to anyone else. Remember when you were little and the saying ‘you’re not the boss of me’ was your biggest weapon? Ya, kinda like that.
I think the first time I had banana pudding was actually at Magnolia Bakery in New York. I’m embarrassed to even talk about it because I was one of those twenty-somethings in line for the cupcake they saw on Sex in the City. Have you been to the bakery? It’s actually quite likeable in a very vintage Americana way with colorful cake-stands and tablecloths and really darn good cupcakes. But that night we knew we wouldn’t be back for a long time, so in addition to cupcakes I bought a few not-so-memorable cookies, a piece of pie, and a to-go container of banana pudding. We sat on the bench across the street, kicked off our shoes, and a quiet fell on the street corner as we sampled each treat. We ambled back to the hotel on that humid night in New York with sticky fingers and smiles. I’ll never forget that banana pudding: super creamy with the ripest bananas and piles of fluffy whipped cream. When I got home, I looked up the recipe in the Magnolia Cookbook only to discover they use instant pudding. It really wasn’t much of a recipe at all–more like add some bananas to some instant pudding and call it a day. Let’s just say that’s about the time when banana pudding and I parted ways. But thanks to this simple recipe, we’re back together.
The recipe is from a great book that focuses just on Southern desserts. We’re talking lemon ice-box pie, Hummingbird cake, Coca Cola cake–nostalgic desserts culled from the editors of Southern Living Magazine. I cut the published recipe in half because, let’s face it, I don’t need 12-14 servings of anything laying around my apartment. But even so, I had some pudding leftover after I filled my serving dish, so I made a few individual glass jars–next time I think I’ll do them all in glass jars. I like how you can see the layers of the pudding through them. I also adapted the recipe to include less sugar and a bit more flour for a slightly thicker pudding. I encourage you to throw in the towel and try some for dinner very soon.
Adapted from: Classic Southern Desserts
Whisk milk and egg yolks in a bowl and pour into a heavy saucepan. Add sugar, flour, and salt and whisk together until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, 20 minutes or until thickened. If it’s not getting as thick as you’d like after 20 minutes, feel free to add another teaspoon of flour. Remove from heat; stir in the vanilla.
Arrange one-third of vanilla wafers in bottom of a small serving dish. Slice 1 banana and layer over wafers. Spoon one-third of custard over bananas. Repeat until custard is gone and you have a few solid layers.
Beat whipping cream at medium speed with an electric mixer until foamy; gradually add powdered sugar to mixture, beating until soft peaks form. Spread over custard. Serve immediately or cover and chill for eight hours.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.