Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Case 102: "The Bourbon Hot Chocolate"

When I was twenty-one, on the eve of Mozart's two-hundred-fiftieth birthday, I went to Vienna for twenty euros.

Wait.  Let me rephrase that. 

If you've ever lived abroad as a twenty-one year old, you would know that to go to Vienna for a price so nice you would actually have to take a train to a bus to a tiny airport an hour from the fashion capital of Italy.  And you'd arrive on the other end not in Austria, per se, but in a little Slovakian town called Bratislava, where paper dry pastries cost less than a euro and the sky is always gray.  

And so, in weather colder than a witch's tit, after another bus and an U-Bahn trip west, we finally arrived at the tiny hostel on Grangasse.

The experiences we had on this trip were not unlike that of most young travelers in Vienna.  There was the room with bunk beds and starched sheets; there was the hostel bar with English backpackers and spiked hair. We cruised to the apartment past the Prater and laid on our backs on the soft wood floor while the shaggy haired boy from norther Connecticut played Beatles songs on guitar. We took glowing shots in the pulsating lights and danced at the disco along the Danube before stumbling out into the streets in search of hot dogs at three AM.  

We drank gluhwein at the Naschmarkt and let butterflies land on our noses at the Schmetterlinghaus. We ate schnitzel in Stephanplatz, and Do-Re-Mi skipped under snow-filled trellises in Salzburg. We ogled over Klimt at the Belvedere, and I took home a copy of "Judith I" for my apartment wall back in Italy. We navigated the black and white floors of Hundertwasser's house, and at dusk we watched the light turn silver from the top of a hill over Schonnbrun Palace. 

"The Bourbon Hot Chocolate" is a chocolate cupcake with a creamy bourbon buttercream.  It's reminiscent of the cafe we huddled in with the painted tiles on the ceiling and endless saucers of this sweet and spike libation that brought us back to life.   

We had descended into a tavern one night, filled with wooden walls and empty tables, and sipped homemade strawberry wine until the cuckoo struck eight and we realized we were late.  I remember running through the cold cobbled streets to the wooden door in a courtyard waving tickets in our hands.  Somehow, we were just in time, and entered the tiny room of twenty-five people and fresco walls.  And there, in his practice room, on the very anniversary of his birthday, we took in Mozart's Quartett in C Major KV.157.  Half-drunk, with many musical years behind me, I remember crying.

There are two times that I remember this trip the most: when I miss my Austrian grandpa and when winter rolls around.  The mild mannered people and the unseasonal markets, the shape of the light around trees and the sound of a string quartet in the crisp air.  During that week, I mostly remember feeling that so many of my life's experiences up until that point finally made sense.  But when I think about it now, there really is something about Austria in the winter that's just right.  And that bourbon hot chocolate?  It still gets me every damn time.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Case Study 101: "The Maple Whiskey Pumpkin Cupcake"

 "Time stands still best in moments 
that look suspiciously like ordinary life."
- Brian Andreas

On the night of November 17th, fall finally arrived in New York City.  It was a crisp evening that finally smelled like dying leaves.  This morning the chill remained, and the early golden light matched what little color is left on the trees.

Of course this happens every year.  But even two months late, I just can't help but find little magic in it when it finally does.

In a late New York fall, the cold streets and the warm packed bars cause windows to glow and fog.  There's a romance and a sadness in the fact that daylight is replaced by Christmas lights, and only on that off-night do you see a sole man still braving an outside lone table on Mulberry Street. People start to move slower and it's easier to see that in Manhattan every situation is a possibility and every face is a story.  I love this.

I made these pumpkin cupcakes topped with maple whiskey cream cheese buttercream for a weekend away with pre-Thanksgiving festivities, a gala and a hell of a lot of catching up with old friends.  So here's to the ordinary fall weekends.  Before you know it, winter will set in.  Drink it up. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Case Study 100: "The Castagne"

Pilgrims and Indians.

I remember pulling on white tights and black Mary Janes in the kitchen.  I remember a floral table cloth and an ironing board, but my eyes gazed towards the television where Tom Turkey floated across Herald Square.  I was more than four and less than seven years old.

She took us to the church that was dark and quiet still, and we were alone with the early light that came across stained glass windows to the faces of the saints.  She wanted to be a nun, but grew up and took care of the priests there instead, and as a result, we were able to run the course of the pews like maps in our minds.  

Those were the same pews that would be filled with dozens of those very priests too few years later when she met God again. The same pews that we would walk quietly through twelve years after that- out the door and down the stairs- as priests in Gregorian chant took her husband to his resting place on a gray morning on the 12th of November. 

 These were my grandparents.

For the first years of my life, my cousins and I donned bonnets and feathers over our holiday best as we re-enacted the first Thanksgiving meeting at a morning mass on Staten island before 9 AM. When you grow up as an Italian-American with a big New York family, you know that this is just something that you do. 

You also know that just as quickly as you play card games or whiffle ball around the Virgin Mary statue in the backyard, you play Communion, giving each other cookie "Bodies of Christ." You know that at any given time someone would be throwing rocks and someone would be yelling, and there would be more than two nuns at the kitchen table telling you about your Roman nose. Someone would be doing penance on the stairs for the rock-throwing, and our grandpa, the King of Hearts, the always constant in this wonderful chaos, would be mixing the Ambrosia. He was the one bit of non-Italianess in the family that gave everyone their height and calmed their Sicilian tempers.

When this is your family, you understand that a salty antipasto or stuffed artichokes precedes any turkey dinner, and trays of dessert precede even that. I can vividly see my baby uncle's fingers sneaking under the cellophane wrapping of Renato's cookies before 5pm. I can see my godmother following suit.  My mother would be after that and in no time, I could see many cheeky smiles around the table, as if every year they were fake surprised to find that we always eat dessert first. 

"The Castagne" are vanilla cupcakes stuffed with a chocolate chestnut cream and topped with a vanilla bean buttercream.  The chestnut, which drops from the tree in the fall, has long been a symbol of abundance, of bounty, of rejoicing in what we have. 

And so, when I think of this, I think of my family.  The pictures of the children at Thanksgiving that have grown over the years.  The grand-babies have been replaced with great-grand-babies, who wave tiny fingers in the air at their angels: our two grandparents who grew this abundant family and now protect it from above.

Last week I went to church, on a Wednesday at lunch. It was a new parish, one I'd never been before, but the way the light hit the walls, it was familiar.  You see, familiarity to me is not the likeness of something to my memory, but the closeness of how much I can relate the experience to my family and find peace in that.

Those walls are everywhere.  In a cathedral off 68th street, in the church of seven churches in Italy, in my uncle's hall in New Jersey where we gather in memorial of it all in honor of my grandfather each year.

This is my family.  I take comfort in knowing that with them, no matter who I am or where I am, I am never alone.  I could find them in a song or in the movement of light, and when it comes down to it, that's what familiarity is all about: it's familial...and it means that there will always be dessert.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Case Study 99: The Day is Mine

"When it's over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world."
- Mary Oliver

As I finish my twenty-seventh trip around the sun, I find myself here: settled.  Not settling- never settling- but landed, in a way, in a place that I've always dreamed of. 

It might be fleeting, but I'll try to remember how this kind of wholeness feels.  I will think about it next week, next month and next year.  And I will hold it close, because by getting here I haven't been given anything but the key to open a brand new door to life.

Tonight I want for nothing but to be with my people.  To be in my place.  To surround myself with music, faces and glittering light. 
Tomorrow is my twenty-seventh birthday.


So here's to today, my own new year's eve, and to twenty-seven plus twenty-seven plus twenty-seven more years of awe and wonderment after this.