Saturday, February 08, 2014

witch's brew

For the last year or so I've been doing some semi-serious research into herbal medicine, mostly to fortify my writing but a little bit out of practical reasons as well.

As I've gotten older I've developed some skin problems. I saw a dermatologist and he went the predictable route: gave me some samples for a VERY expensive topical cream (which made me very dry and uncomfortable) and wanted to put me on a testosterone inhibitor--without checking my hormone levels, and despite the fact that I had none of the other symptoms of high testosterone, just acne. I said no, thank you.

There's an herb called Vitex (chaste tree berry/chaste berry) that reputedly has hormone balancing properties; there have been a few clinical studies to indicate that it can alleviate PMS symptoms. It's also one of the two major ingredients in a commercially available "acne tea" which I have used before, with good results.

Problem is, the tea's expensive, and not available locally. So I could order it in bulk, and have lots of little stupid overpriced tea bags and steel canisters clogging my pantry (and recycling bins) or I could make my own. Luckily I have access to an amazing natural foods store that sells dried herbs in bulk.

The place looks like the aunts' conservatory in Practical Magic. They sell all kinds of stuff that even I, with my casual knowledge of herbal medicine, know to be potentially harmful. They stock at least three abortifacients, ready to scoop into little baggies for $1.49/oz.

I copied down the ingredients from the back of the commercial tea's packaging and went to the store. I started pulling down jars and lining them up in a row, checking them against my list: Vitex, burdock, chamomile, and a handful of florals for flavoring.

"Are you making a spell?" my husband said, in a delighted kind of way.

After a second's thought I said, "Yes, actually."

I will confess something now that will probably have my mother throwing Holy Water at me, if she ever hears of it: I've always wished I was a witch. Not a touchy-feely-new-age-mother-earth-gaia-goddess kind of witch, but somebody with real power, like in the fantasy stories. I have never tried to be one because I don't believe in magic or higher powers that mortals can harness to their benefit. Religious rituals are a waste of time, to my mind. Nevertheless, the last few weeks have been stressful and I've been writing about my characters doing magic, and complaining that it's a pity such powers don't exist, because I could use a bit of influence over the world right now.

But last night I made my tea, with the help of a food processor to chop some of the dried herbs (I tried using my mortar and pestle but those hibiscus flowers are tough, dude). And I was drinking it for breakfast--it had the familiar scent and flavor of the commercial stuff, but stronger--and I thought to myself, This is the kind of knowledge wise women used to have, before the Church decided they were a threat and declared them heretics. By researching and mixing these herbs I have successfully circumvented both the priests of pharmacology and the acolytes of marketing.

So I say what the hell: Blessed be.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

white cake with berries

Here's a delicately flavored, pretty white cake with berry filling, good for bridal/baby showers or just when you want to show off.

This recipe is adapted from Restaurant Eve's white cake. It's the only treatment of a cake batter I've seen in which the butter is melted and combined with the flour first, and it works wonders. It's also, as far as I can tell, pretty much foolproof. I have beaten this batter within an inch of its life and it came out fine.


8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temp.
2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
4 eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper. (I HIGHLY recommend using the paper. This batter is delicate and sticks like crazy.)

Combine sugar, flour, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Use an electric mixer to beat in melted butter in 3-4 stages. Beat for about 2 minutes; the texture will resemble cornmeal.

In a separate bowl, combine eggs, vanilla extract and milk. Add to the flour-butter mixture in two batches (scraping the bowl once), and beat until smooth.

Distribute the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack and cool for 20 minutes. Remove cakes from pans to cool completely.

Berry filling:

1 cup strawberries
3 Tbs sugar
1 Tbs lemon juice
1/4 tsp vanilla
1 cup blueberries
1 cup raspberries
1 cup blackberries

In a food processor or with a potato ricer, mash strawberries with the sugar, lemon juice, and vanilla until you have pulp. Mash the other berries lightly (best to do the blueberries alone, or they don't get mashed well) and then combine all. Let sit a bit for the flavors to mingle.


This is probably my favorite icing ever. It has a wonderful light texture and is not nearly as sweet as a buttercream. The cooking can seem intimidating, but it's really a simple two-step process. Just keep a close eye on the cooking roux; it can scorch very quickly. 

5 Tbs flour1 cup milk1 tsp vanilla1 cup butter1 cup granulated sugar (NOT powdered sugar!)

In a small saucepan, combine flour and milk over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens. This will happen suddenly, but don't panic; keep whisking until very thick, like brownie batter, then remove from heat immediately and put into your mixing bowl. Stir in vanilla. Resist the urge to taste it; it will be fairly weird at this point.

Now set the gravy aside to cool to room temperature. You can cover it and put it in the fridge for a bit, but if it gets hard it will be difficult to blend. It must be completely cool before the sugar/butter are added.

While the mixture is cooling, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. You don’t want any sugar graininess left. Then add the completely cooled milk/flour/vanilla mixture and beat until uniform and fluffy, like whipped cream at the stiff stage.

Speaking of whipped cream:

I like to cut my filling-frosting with whipped cream to reduce the sweet and stretch the amount, so you may also want 2 cups of hard-whipped cream on hand.

To assemble cake:

Cut each layer in half horizontally (I don't have to explain what this means, right?) so you end up with four cake layers. A long serrated bread knife works well enough for a home kitchen.

Take out about 1/3 of the frosting mixture and fold the whipped cream into it.

On the first cake layer, smear on a generous coating of the berry mixture with a large spoon (not so much that it will ooze out the sides). Spread the icing-whipped-cream combo on top of the berries.

Repeat with layers 2 and 3.

Put the top on the cake, and frost the sides and top with the uncut frosting. Refrigerate promptly. This cake is probably best after it has chilled and the layers have set up a bit.

Monday, February 03, 2014

'exquisite' and 'squirm' both have a Q in them

Last week my husband had to attend this professional banquet, so I got to dress up and tag along. I don't mind; I get to wear some of the nice clothes that never see the outside of my closet, and I don't have to make dinner that night.

I was dressed sharp--skirt, jacket, heels, pearls--and I could see people sizing me up, trying to decide if I was someone important. It's fun to tell the suit-and-tie crowd that I'm a professional costume designer. They don't know what to do with that.

Problem was, once they learned I wasn't in the biz, they didn't know what to say to me--and these are folks who are not comfortable with silence. So I got a lot of compliments on my hair, my suit. From women, mind you. When people say women dress up for each other, they ain't joking. Most men know not to stare; women don't bother to hide it.

It was actually a little weird, and I was maybe hyper-attuned to it because I just read that article going around about how society conditions girls to place greater importance on their physical appearance than on their abilities. I admit I've fallen back on those conversational gambits, although I try not to.

The young woman I sat next to did pretty well; she asked what I did, who my customers were, stuff like that. But the older woman on the other side of her was complimentary to the point of being embarrassing. She said what a beautiful couple I made with my husband, and how chic and "coiffed" I was. She told the Sparring Partner I was "exquisite," which made me feel a little like a trophy wife--a new and peculiar feeling.

My smart man replied, "Yeah, she cleans up good."

Which is why I married him.