Sunday, December 9, 2012

Street Treats

Back when I lived in San Francisco, we used to find cool things out on the street all the time. And we'd even bring them into our homes--a thought that is unheard of in this day and age. But we didn't even think about bed bugs back then. As far as I knew, they were something Henry Miller had to deal with in 1920s Paris as he ran around from brothel to brothel in Tropic of Cancer. I found coffee tables on the sidewalk, bought couches from strangers on Craigslist. Cool bookshelf in an alley? Why not! Just bring it on in! People do, after all, throw out some really cool stuff. But in the last six or seven years, this kind of street scavenging is absolutely out of the question. At least in major city areas. And if I see a mattress on the street, there is a good chance I will cross to the other side. 

Which is why it was so surprising that I brought this sewing machine into my house yesterday. After all, I found it on the street! 
I was walking to the grocery store and passed by my neighbor's house, as I always do. There is a very sweet old couple that lives in the building. Between April and September, they sit outside in folding chairs and listen to the radio, and they say hello to every single person that walks by. As I walked by their house yesterday, I saw this table sitting outside. It's tall and skinny, not a terrible looking end table but not spectacular either. Aside from the fact that we don't need any more furniture in our house, the whole "don't take furniture in off the street because it might have bed bugs" thing keeps me from looking at any street furniture too seriously. But then, on my way back, I noticed a cord hanging down from inside of the table. I stopped in my tracks. Could it be? Sure enough, I lifted the top of the table and inside was an old Singer sewing machine, neatly tucked inside the table. 
I ran into the house, where Robb was sitting on the couch, and said something along the lines of "how much will you hate me if I bring a piece of furniture in off the street." After a quick pow-wow, we ascertained that it must have belonged to the elderly lady next door, and that she was probably getting rid of it because she no longer sews--not because her house is infested with bed bugs. So I ran outside and lugged it in.

The bad news is the belt is broken and it's missing the power cord. The good news is that those things are pretty easy to fix, and it is gorgeous and fits perfectly in our kitchen, right beneath a little homage to the Sierras that I have unconsciously put together over the years (a string of pine cones, a framed photo of a pine tree that belonged to my great grandmother, and a grizzly bear bottle opener).

I just love these old built-in machines. They're so smart, and so neat, and so much more glamorous than the plastic Kenmore I'm currently using. I mean, when in use, the table extends to give you a whole new work surface. And when not in use, the machine folds down inside of the table, and the foot fits neatly into a slot on the inside, leaving nothing but a simple, practical table behind. It's like a transformer for sewing goddesses, and I love it.

A quick look at the serial number reveals that this one is from 1948. Oh, the spectacular garments that my neighbor must have sewn back then! I imagine her in a homemade coat dress, the lapel smoothed, her hair pulled back from her face, and her lips red and glossy. Was she married to her husband then? Was he back from the war or still off in the Pacific? Oh, the stories...I'm dying to know. Now, when I see them outside in their folding chairs this April, I just have to work up the nerve to tell them that I'm the one who took the machine, and that, I hope they know, it is in good hands.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Last Week's Cake

I must admit, after a long, challenging Monday, it's hard to remember the pure elation that went into making this cake last Thursday night. Isn't it funny how far we swing during the course of just one week? My cycle typically begins with a fabulous "the world is a good place to be" type of feeling on Friday, an energetic, hopeful lilt on Saturday, a sleepy, slightly moody Sunday followed by a bad night of sleep, followed by a rough Monday at work. As the week goes on, I usually remember how to fall asleep before 1 a.m. I might turn off the TV at night and do something, think something, make something, see someone, and by the time Thursday arrives, I am a fully formed, nearly hopeful person again, ready to enjoy my weekend. Thursday is one of the better days, I think, right on the cusp of greatness. And this last Thursday was one of the best. On the docket after work, I had already planned to make a birthday cake for my sweetheart--and I do love devoting an entire night, at home alone, to baking. But then, as we were finishing dinner and I was hunting for my sifter and marveling at how I had managed to buy duplicate bags of confectioner's sugar and cocoa powder when I already had plenty of both at home, we got a phone call. First Robb's phone rang and he missed it, then my phone rang and I missed it, and then we both looked at our phones and saw that our friend Ryan had called. "Baby!" I yelled out, and Robb beat me to calling Ryan back. Our friend Jess, Ryan's wife, had gone into labor. 

Ryan came over and dropped off his little King Charles pup, Mister, and uttered something joyful and slightly panicked like "I'm gonna be a!"Mister sulked on the couch. (He can't stand our dog Camper...too licky, too sniffy, too jabby in his giant eyeballs.) And then before I knew it, Ryan was off to the hospital and Robb was off to work and there I was with two mismatched dogs and an ambitious cake to bake.
I had forgotten to look up any cake recipes that day, so I did a quick search on my phone for a recipe in the grocery store. One of the first ones that came up was from Ina Garten--Beatty's Chocolate Cake--and when in doubt, always go with the Ina Garten recipe. There is a reason her cookbooks sell better than anyone else's. Her food is no fuss brilliant, her instructions could not be clearer. And you don't even mind doing annoying things like buttering the cake pan, then placing your parchment paper in the pan, then buttering it again and flouring. You know there is a good reason she's telling you to do it and you just do it. 
While Mister stared at the door, pouting, and Camper chewed on the loudest of his squeaky toys, I did things like mix up this sinister butter-cream frosting, all the time my brain jumping around erratically, one second marveling at how my dear friend Jess was going to be a mom, and the next wondering if a from-scratch Caesar salad would be a good side dish for Robb's birthday dinner the following night.
While we waited for the cakes to cool, the dogs fought for prime real estate on my lap. Mister, who has the genetic edge of being an actual lap dog, won most rounds. 
And of course, because it was Ina, the cakes came right out of the pan, almost disturbingly moist and fluffy. (Could it have been the buttermilk? Or the bit of vegetable oil? What makes this cake so superior?) Because Robb loves chocolate and cherries, I found myself straining a can of cherry-pie filling--I spread the cherry liquid onto the middle layer of the lake, and the cherries themselves would go on top later.
Before long, I had a happy little cake on my hands. Yes, this cake would do just fine. It was adequately frosted, only a bit lopsided. But I started to think about those cherries and got nervous...wouldn't they roll right off the top?
Indeed, they would! Those cherries needed a blockade of sorts. A spiky blockade--the very best kind. And soon enough I found myself getting out the pastry bags and the pastry tips and scooping gobs of extra frosting into the bag. Note to people as daft as I am--make sure to put that pastry tip in the bag before you fill it with frosting. (This is how, at one point, I found myself with chocolate frosting up to my elbow, attempting to wrestle a pastry tip into the point of a full bag of frosting...not as delicious as you might think.)
The party? It was full of wine and my favorite people and a kazoo sing-a-long and a damn fine Caesar salad if I may say so myself. The cake? Bright and happy, intense and gooey (the cup of espresso she tells you to add to the batter is absolutely crucial). And the photo Jess sent us as we were wrapping up dinner? The best thing ever. Little Wren Devlin. Happy birthday to her brand new sweet soul, and to Robb's sweet soul, too. It was a great birthday weekend indeed.
And now, because it's Monday and a girl's got to do something sometimes to improve her mood after a long day, I am going to go eat some of that cake.