Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fruit Tarts and Giving Hearts

I don't usually like fruit in my desserts.  I like fruit, and I like dessert, just not at the same time.  For my trip to Sugar Bakery in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, however, I made an exception.  There was much to choose from at Sugar Bakery, as the counter display featured rows and rows of artful pastries, cupcakes, and cookies.  I was drawn to the "Ashley" fruit tart.  It looked inviting-- a small pie-shaped tart covered in small mounds of whipped cream, topped by one peach slice, one raspberry, and a white chocolate garnish.  It did not disappoint.  The whipped cream had more texture than the whipped cream you might find on a sundae, and was slightly sweeter. The raspberry and peach slice were a nice accompaniment to the cream. Underneath the cream was a layer of sweet fruit compote consisting of apricot and peach, and dotted with clusters of raspberry.  Although I am not a big apricot fan, the apricot gave the fruit a tangy burst of flavor, which worked nicely with the delicious cream and fresh fruit on top.  Pulling it all together was the crust, which appeared to have a thin layer of white chocolate lining the bottom crust.  If anything could be improved upon, it would be the crust. It did the job and was neither too dry nor too sweet, but it could have been softer.  Had I tried to slice into it with a plastic fork, I think I would have had some trouble, but since I was enjoying the tart so much and yes, eating it like an apple, the crust did not present a problem.  All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable dessert.

While we are on the subject of fruit, I have a story about cherries.

A family was on vacation in Montana, a long way from home.  It was a Sunday, and the parents wanted to attend church services.  On the way back from some sightseeing they stopped at a church, and the oldest daughter, a teenager, all but refused to get out of the car.  The teenager thought it was unnecessary to drag the whole family to church while on vacation, and had no problem saying so.  After a rather significant period of time during which the mother offered an explanation, which quickly turned to lecture, and then an exasperated directive, the family finally emerged from their rental car and headed into the church.  With the daughter complaining all the way.  The father volunteered to continue dealing with the daughter while the mother went in to find seats with the other children.  It took an awfully long time for the father and daughter to join the family, and by that time the mother's nerves were frayed.  The father finally appeared and whispered that the daughter had gotten a rather large nosebleed and they had used up all of the tissues they could find.  The frustrated mom got up and said she would handle it, and she went and found her daughter outside, trying in vain to stave off the nosebleed.  As the mother watched her daughter trying to deal with the nosebleed, the mother felt some sympathy.  But mostly the mother was exasperated that the daughter had gotten her way and now was, in fact, not attending church.  The mother and daughter walked around the little town for awhile, looking in vain for a store to purchase some more tissues.  At some point the bleeding finally stopped.  And it was around that time that the daughter noticed them.

A family had set up a makeshift fruit stand by the side of the road.  There was a mother holding a baby, a father, and two pre-teen daughters, and they were selling bags of cherries from a few plastic folding chairs and a small table. Their dress and manner indicated that there might be a reason that they were selling cherries on the street from plastic chairs.  It did not appear that they were selling very much that day. 

"Mom, we have to go buy some cherries," said the daughter.

"What are we going to do with cherries?" replied the mother.  "We don't need cherries.  They're not going to keep in the hotel room.  And we don't even know where the cherries came from."

"Mom, we really have to buy some of those cherries from those people," said the daughter.

And so the mother gave the daughter some money, and the daughter bought a big bag of cherries.  The daughter seemed very happy to be carrying the plastic bag of cherries back toward the church.  And the mother, no longer exasperated, was somewhat amazed at how things had turned out.  Yes, her daughter had missed church.  But the mother felt like she received a great lesson about her daughter that day.  And about what it means to have a good heart.

Sometimes, when we let kids be, the good stuff rises to the top.  And sometimes the good stuff is even better than what parents expect.

By the time they walked back to the church, the mother and daughter had missed most of the service.  But it didn't really matter.  They had had their church, right there on the street in Whitefish, Montana, buying cherries at a plastic chair fruit stand.  

Have a fruit-filled and happy, fruitful week.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

How to Build the Perfect Peanut Butter Cup Sundae, and Other Stories

Twenty-nine years ago I performed in the musical Pippin on my high school stage.  This past weekend, a number of the cast members of that show reunited in New York to see Pippin on Broadway.  It was a wonderful reunion, and quite a profound experience, to gather with people that I performed with so many years ago.  I was struck by the fact that it seemed not so long ago that I was dancing and singing with these friends, and now we were adults, remembering the things we did and felt and talked about when we were in our teens.  How did we get from there to here?  And what did we take with us along the way?  

High school, and everything that comes with it, becomes a part of us, part of the fabric of who we are.  But some experiences from high school seem to stay with us more than others.  Here are two of my favorites.  One, of course, involves dessert.  More specifically, peanut butter cup sundaes.

During high school, I spent a significant amount of time perfecting the perfect peanut butter cup sundae, as my high school friends can attest.  The best peanut butter cup sundae, unequivocally, can only be found at Friendly’s.  I have tried to replicate it elsewhere, but it is simply not the same.  When ordering this sundae at Friendly’s, one must order the Peanut Butter Cup Sundae, often confused with the Reese's Pieces Sundae, which is not the same thing.  The Reese's Pieces Sundae has five scoops of ice cream (too much) as opposed to three in the Peanut Butter Cup Sundae (just right).  In addition, Reese's Pieces are inferior to a whole peanut butter cup as a sundae garnish.  This I know from experience.  So again, order the Peanut Butter Cup Sundae.  For your three ice cream flavors, do not choose vanilla, as listed in the menu, but choose two scoops of cookies and cream and one scoop of butter crunch.  The butter crunch must go on the bottom, and must be ordered in precisely that way, or else the whole sundae falls apart.  The cookies and cream flavor, when placed on the top, mixes perfectly with the peanut butter sauce, hot fudge, and whipped cream.  The peanut butter sauce nicely plays off of the oreos in the cookies and cream ice cream, and the hot fudge provides a nice contrast to the peanut butter.  By the time you get down to the butter crunch on the bottom, all of your toppings are gone, and the butter crunch serves to cleanse the palate with its simple flavor.  After the butter crunch, you are ready for the slightly frozen peanut butter cup, which was placed on top of the sundae, but is best saved for last as the perfect finish. 

My friends and I shared many happy times our local Friendly’s.  Many high school memories were also created on the stage of our high school, which leads me to my next story.  It was senior year, the year after we did Pippin.  Our drama group was suddenly without a faculty advisor and director.  The school musical had been canceled. We were upset, shocked, and panicked that there would be no show that year.  It was, frankly, unthinkable.  So what did we do?  We pulled together.  We did a show anyway. 

We chose a musical.  Held auditions.  Met with the assistant principal and asked for a pittance of a budget so that we could get the rights to perform the show Godspell.  A talented sophomore said she could direct.  A senior doubled as an actor and musical director.  The dancers among us served as choreographers.  We adapted the show to accommodate a large cast to make sure everyone felt like they had a part.  We came together every day on that high school stage to rehearse, just us kids.  And we did it.  We put on a full length musical that year, and the program listed the names of the production team, the stage crew, the lighting crew, and the actors, all of whom were between the ninth and twelfth grades. 

Looking back on it now, I’m not sure how we did it.  We were told that faculty and parents cried when they watched us perform.  I didn’t quite understand that back then, but as an adult, I do now.  We were fearless.  We didn’t take no for an answer, and we used our collective passion to create something great.  And every single one of us received more than just a bow at the end of the night.

Thanks LHS, for peanut butter cup sundaes, and for Godspell.  You can never go back, but you can remember.  And you can even take some things with you, like the knowledge that you can achieve something great against all odds.  And the recipe for a great sundae.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Pure Flavor, Pure Heart

I recently went to Toscanini's in Cambridge, the standard for good ice cream. Although I typically love to have a lot going on in my ice cream, my favorite flavor at Toscanini's is Burnt Caramel.  No fudge, peanut butter, caramel ribbon, or chocolate covered anything.  Toscanini's doesn't need to fill the ice cream with a lot of contrasting flavors or candies because the quality is in the ice cream itself.  Burnt Caramel has an incredibly smooth texture, which makes the ice cream seem light and less dense than other flavors.  The taste is a mature caramel flavor; sweet, with an edge that prevents it from being too sugary or simply too plain.  The edge is what keeps you coming back for more, and the inviting texture carries the flavor through to the last bite.  A pure and sophisticated ice cream experience!  The Burnt Caramel was all about a singular flavor, just pure burnt caramel.

I want to tell a story today about being pure of heart.  Not surprisingly, it involves a child.  True story.  A mom heard about a healing service which was to take place in her church on a Tuesday evening.  She decided she wanted to go, and wanted to take her five year old daughter with her.  Her daughter had many food allergies, which required a great deal of accommodation, planning, and preparation, to be able to eat safely inside and outside of the home.  As a person of faith, she thought it could only help.  The mom explained the reason for the service to the child, and told her that she could pray for whatever she wanted, such as food allergies.  Since the child was the kind of child who didn't mind church and liked accompanying the mom on all sorts of outings, she was happy to go.  So the child and the mom went to the service, and it was a nice service, with music and readings, and a special part of the service where people could go up and receive a healing prayer.  At first not many people got up, but then most of the people in the church went forward, to receive a prayer for whatever was in their hearts.  The mom asked the child if she wanted to go up, and the child said yes.  The child, so very small, walked up to receive a healing prayer with her mom, and then went back to the pew and said a prayer.  There were few children there that night, but the child seemed unaffected by that, and seemed perfectly comfortable sitting through, and participating in, the healing service.  The mom leaned over as the service was drawing to a close and said quietly, "What did you pray for?"  She waited for the child's answer, fully expecting the child to say that she had prayed for healing from her food allergies.  The mom was poised to tell her what a wonderful prayer that was.  

"I prayed for the poor people," the child said.

A pure heart.  An unselfish heart.  How freeing, to escape our own concerns, needs, and wants, and think about someone else, even for a moment.  

Buy someone else an ice cream this week.  And pick a great flavor!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Cupcakes and Choices

Today is cupcake day!  I'm a big cupcake fan, and today I tried not one, but two cupcakes, from Five Bites Cupcakes in Wellesley, Massachusetts.  Today's picks were the Chocolate Chip Cookie Cupcake and the Coconut Cupcake.  The Chocolate Chip Cookie presentation was the best in the entire cupcake display-- Vanilla cake with chocolate chips mixed throughout, a perfect mound of vanilla frosting, dotted with small chocolate chips, with a thick slab of chocolate chip cookie artfully placed on top.  Yes, it was calling my name.  It was like five desserts in one.  The frosting was a bit unexpected, and tasted more sugary than the traditional buttercream, which I prefer. The mix of sugar frosting, chocolate chips, and thick chocolate chip cookie was honestly too much.  In nice contrast to this sugary start was a surprise cupcake filling;  a cool chocolate cream, somewhere between pudding and custard.  It helped to balance everything else that was going on in this cupcake.  The Coconut Cupcake was more understated and was the surprising winner of the day.  Presentation was simple:  Vanilla cake with a mound of vanilla frosting topped with toasted coconut.  The same sugary frosting found in the Chocolate Chip Cupcake was balanced here by a sweet cream filling:  think Twinkie filling but less sugar, more texture, and more subtle taste.  Again, a welcome balance to the sugar content in the frosting.  The toasted coconut was the best part of this cupcake;  flavorful but not overwhelming, and enough to last through every bite.

Although I risked quite the sugar headache, it was fun to enjoy two cupcakes in one sitting; to enjoy a variety of something and not have to make a choice.  But sometimes in life you simply have to make choices, and it's often difficult.  There's a Fred Rogers quote that I love.  He said,  "You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices.  And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are."  Here's an example of such a choice.  Music has always been a big part of my life.   For about eight years I had the opportunity to sing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.  I sang with some of the greatest conductors in the world, on some of the greatest stages in the world.  I became a better musician, a better singer, and I learned more than I ever thought possible about classical music, opera, and the voice.  I would not have traded that experience.  But at some point, the rehearsal schedule, musical study, and the travel did not fit into my life anymore.  It was hard to say goodbye to the music, the friends I had made, and yes, the accolades and notoriety of belonging to this chorus.  I fought against this decision, but it was right for me to finally stop, as it had become a source of stress rather than enjoyment.  Fast forward six months and another musical opportunity presented itself.  A large and thriving homeless shelter, serving hundreds of people in Boston, had a great art program but had no music program.  I could come in for an hour or two per week, on a schedule that I set.   I started a music program, and received a fulfillment that the largest and best stages in the world could not provide.  Had I not made that difficult choice to leave what I previously thought was the pinnacle of what I could do musically, my heart would not have found the joy that I presently share with others.  

Have a cupcake, or two, this week.  And be on the lookout for what Mr. Rogers was talking about;  those unexpected choices that will lead you to who you are, and who you were meant to be.