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The dead who dream

We are long overdue, I think, for a Restaurant Day. So much so, actually, that I’m not sure where to start. But I guess the front door is as good a place as any.

I know I haven’t mentioned it around here much lately, but The Thing That Will One Day Be Delancey marches on, slowly but surely. With emphasis, I guess I should say, on the slowly part. We are doing this on a very slim budget, which means that most of the work is done with our four hands - mainly Brandon’s, actually, to be perfectly fair - and with borrowed labor, borrowed pickup trucks, and borrowed tools from friends and family. I can’t imagine doing it any other way, especially not in this grisly economy, but we are no match for a contractor and a construction crew, and when bedtime comes, we sleep like the dead. The dead who dream of wood-fired pizza.

But somehow we like it, and we still like each other, and that feels reassuring. Our plans were approved and stamped by the city last Friday, and the liquor license came in the mail today, and though we hit a snag on the plumbing this morning that required self-medication in the form of some coconut macaroons, we are aiming to open in mid-May. With emphasis on the aiming to part. So don’t quote me on that quite yet.

A lot happened over there - at “the space,” as we call it - while I was out of town, so I feel as though I have about three posts’ worth of news for you, but today I want to tell you about two items in particular: the floor, and the oven.

When we started, half of the floor was carpeted, and half of it was painted the shade of blue you see above. What we wanted was a natural concrete floor: no paint, no nonsense, just a coat of sealant. So Brandon ripped out the carpet, and then he rented something called a Shot Blaster.

Privately, I hoped that the Shot Blaster was some sort of high-tech bartending tool, or maybe a weapon for firing one-ounce portions of vodka at my enemies. I pictured it as something akin to the marshmallow bazooka I once read about in a SkyMall catalog, battery powered and promising to launch “edible, full-sized marshmallows up to 40’, forever changing the rules of engagement for marshmallow gun confrontations.” But I was wrong. A Shot Blaster is a cross between a vacuum cleaner, an industrial sander, and a tennis ball machine. You push it (slowly and laboriously; it’s tricky) over a surface, the same way you would a sander, and as you do so, it shoots out and circulates thousands of tiny steel balls, which pummel whatever is beneath them, removing paint, carpet glue, anything that crosses their path. The Shot Blaster removed the blue paint, but unfortunately, it also left a weird, conspicuous pattern in its wake - like the trail a vacuum cleaner leaves as it moves over carpet, only more aggressive - and worse, it revealed some nasty cracks in the floor, cracks that had been filled with cement until we Shot Blasted the living crap out of them.

Needless to say, it was a disappointment, not to mention a huge waste of money. For a minute there, we looked at each other, and we were Tom Hanks and Shelley Long in The Money Pit. After weighing our options, we decided to reseal the cracks and paint the floor. We also decided never to speak of the Shot Blaster again. We’ve chosen a paint color, a warm shade of gray, and maybe the next time we have a Restaurant Day, I will show it to you.

On the upside, the wood-burning oven has arrived, and that, THAT, is what this whole place is about. Of course, it arrived in pieces, weighs nearly 4000 pounds, and took 24 hours to assemble, but it’s a beauty. It was worth it.

It’s an Italian-style oven, made by a California-based company called Mugnaini. Brandon tried a number of different styles and brands and concepts, both gas-fired and wood-burning, and this one was the winner. We could have bought it fully assembled and ready to use, but that would have required removing a large window to install it, and possibly a wall. Instead, we bought the oven in parts. And to make sure that we didn’t completely botch its assembly, we flew someone up from the company to help us. (Somehow, that was actually cheaper than it would have been to remove and replace a window. Don’t ask.) His name was Michael, and he was so fantastic, so charming and knowledgeable and immediately at ease, that we were tempted to adopt him as some sort of long-lost uncle. That’s him, the blur in the picture above, preparing to piece together and lay the oven floor, which is what you see below.

Once the floor was in place, the dome of the oven could be built above it. The dome was composed of thick, curving panels, a little like petals from an enormous tulip, that fit snugly together and were crowned with a final, circular panel. Each of them, each panel, weighed over 200 pounds.

The spaces between the panels were filled with refractory cement, and then the whole dome was wrapped with ceramic fiber, and then the thing was encased in metal walls, and then on top went a ton of refractory cement and perlite, for thermal mass and insulation. For the record, I do not pretend to know what thermal mass is.

In fact, I was given a special dispensation from most of this. For the better part of the process, which went on until 2 am, I was at home, asleep. But Brandon and Michael took a lot of pictures, and if you want to see the entire process, every single step, you can geek out right here.

When I arrived the next morning, it was done. Magic.

Of course, we then had to move it from where it was built, in the center of the room, into its proper location against a wall in the kitchen-to-be. That part did not involve magic, but rather me, Brandon, and our friend Ben, early in the morning and bleary-eyed, inching the thing around on a hydraulic handtruck, using some masking tape, a plastic protractor, and a 30° wedge cut out of cardboard to maneuver it into the right position before the ventilation people arrived to build the chimney.

Now that the oven is in place, we can pretty it up with some tile and start to construct the bar and the kitchen around it. That’s next. That, and making concrete tabletops. I can tell you about that another time, if you want. Until then, you know where to find me.

P.S. Actually, aside from Delancey, you can find me at Third Place Books this Friday night, April 3, at 6:30 pm.


The feeling of it

I’m not sure what to say today. Pretty much the only thing that comes to mind is whoa. And wow. And thank you.

Actually, it’s more like THANK YOU. With lots of !!!!! at the end. Just to be perfectly clear.

I don’t have much to show for the past ten days, I have to admit. I took a couple of cameras on the road with me, but somehow, I only brought them out when I was in transit, in the subway or on a train, or in an airplane, half asleep between Newark and Seattle, sitting next to a window whose surface was so intricately, so elaborately, so eerily scratched-up that it looked like the thumbprint of a giant. Oh well.

I guess I also managed to take a couple of meal-time shots, but really, only a couple. So, no, I don’t have much to show for my time on the road. Nothing except a few spent Sharpies, some dirty clothes, and a lot of disbelief and wonder that it ever happened at all.

Somehow, when I thought about doing a book tour, I imagined myself standing painfully, night after night, in front of a roomful of empty chairs, listening to the hum of the ceiling lights and cracking halfhearted jokes with the guy at the cash register to keep from curling into the fetal position and dying on the spot. But miraculously, that was not the case, not even once, and I have you to thank for that. Thank you. This blog has always felt to me like a conversation, a conversation that we’ve had for going on five years, but until now, I never got to see your faces, and you never got to see mine. In the past couple of weeks, that has started to change, and I like the feeling of it.

So thank you, and thank you again. Thank you to the bookstores who hosted me, to the friends and family who gave me beds and blankets and bought me cheeseburgers, to those of you who e-mailed and left comments here, and to those of you who came out to say hello, bearing brownies, biscotti, cookies, rugelach, olives, jam, dish towels, maple syrup, fancy salt, and handwritten recipes. You people! You people. I won’t ever get over you.

You know, there’s a little espresso machine repair shop up the hill from our apartment - yes, Seattle lives up to its stereotypes - and I’ve been thinking about it lately. The guy who runs the place is terrific. He’s very quiet and intentional, and very happy in a quiet, intentional way. He never rushes or seems harried, and half of the time, rather than charging you to fix your machine, he tells you how to fix it yourself, for free. He has a dry-erase board in the shop where he writes observations or snatches of wisdom, things seemingly simple - dead-simple, really, and even somewhat hokey - that you somehow wind up thinking about for days, turning over and over like a coin in your pocket. My friend Ben has taken to referring to the espresso repair guy as his Guru on the Hill, which nicely sums up how we feel about him.

Anyway, this weekend, Ben called to tell me that he had gone to the shop last week, and when he walked in, the guru was writing on the dry-erase board, and what it said was, “I can’t wait to see what happens next.” I don’t know about you, but I think there is something sort of great about that. And I second it, in about eight million different ways.

I am going to keep this short, since I’m more tired than I would like to admit. But I’m going to cook this for dinner tomorrow, which I’m pretty excited about, and next week, you should be prepared for an onslaught, a deluge, a whathaveyou of all things Delancey, because a lot is happening over there.

So, onward we go.

P.S. The book events aren’t entirely over. Click here for more, and if you’re in or near Olympia, you can find me this Friday, March 27, at 6:30 pm at the Olympia Timberland Library. It’s free and open to the public, so come on out.


What a kick

[Update: New Yorkers, please see below for information about a second event - just added! - at Idlewild Books on March 19.]

Hi, all.

I can’t stay for long today, but I had to stop in for a minute. I just had to thank you for all of your hugely kind comments and e-mails about the book. I’m not so good at replying right now, but please know that I read every one, and that you have made my day many times over. This whole book thing feels completely crazy, really. It feels as though I’ve been given a bit part on some flashy, fancy TV show - maybe I’m a murder victim on the autopsy table on CSI: NY, let’s say - and even though I’m only on screen for 20 seconds, probably with bad makeup and a huge, gaping chest wound that makes everyone wince and cover their eyes, what a kick it is, an absolute kick, to be there at all.

I just wish that I could make it go by a little less quickly. I’ve got to figure out how to slow down my brain. On the other hand, I’ve also got to figure out how to speed up my dishwashing technique. Two days ago, on Saturday, I was still washing dishes from last Tuesday.

Oh well.

I’m getting on a plane tomorrow, and here’s a list of where I’m headed. If you’re anywhere nearby, please come say hello. I would love to meet you. I know I’ve said it before, but I wasn’t kidding: to me, that’s the best part of this whole thing.

This week:

Capitola, CA
March 10, 7:30 pm
Capitola Book Cafe
Free event, open to the public

San Francisco, CA
March 11, 6:00 pm
Book Passage (Ferry Plaza)
Free event, open to the public

Oklahoma City, OK
March 14, 2:00 pm
Full Circle Bookstore
Free event, open to the public

And next week:

The March 16 event at Ceiba in Washington, DC is now full. There were a huge number of RSVPs, far more than I expected, and there just isn’t enough physical space in the room to accommodate everyone. I’m so sorry about that.

But, on the upside, we have scheduled a second DC event:

Washington, DC
March 17, 12:30 pm
1801 K Street NW
Free event, open to the public

And for those of you in New York, please note that due to large numbers at last week’s events in Seattle and Portland (thank you!), Idlewild Books is now asking that you RSVP if you plan to attend:

New York, NY
March 18, 7:00 pm
Idlewild Books
Free event, open to the public, but please RSVP to: events@idlewildbooks.com

Update: Due to demand, we have added a second(!) event at Idlewild Books in New York:

New York, NY
March 19, 7:00 pm
Idlewild Books
Free event, open to the public, but please RSVP to: events@idlewildbooks.com

See you out there.


I mean it

I would like to sit down here today and write as though everything were normal, as though I were actually capable of forming complete sentences. But the truth is, I am an absolute maniac. Tomorrow is the official release date for my book, a day that I never really trusted would come, and I feel alternately so ecstatic and so freaked out that I can’t decide whether I need to run around the block a few dozen times or lie down for a nap. In the meantime, I will eat some sweet potato pound cake. As you can see, that’s been my fallback position for a few days now.

Many of you have written already(!) to say that you have the book in your hands, and that you’ve started to read and cook from it, and I want to thank you for that. Thank you. I wouldn’t have written the thing at all if it weren’t for you, and I mean it. I hope that, if you can, you will come out and let me shake your hand and thank you in person. I’ll be looking for you.

To those of you in the Seattle area: I will be at University Book Store tomorrow night - Tuesday, March 3 - at 7:00 pm. I’m baking some coconut macaroons with chocolate ganache for the occasion, and as an added bonus, I will probably be blushing uncontrollably through the entire evening. It’s a show you don’t want to miss. (4326 University Way NE)

To those in the Portland area: I will be at Powell’s this Friday, March 6, at 7:30 pm. I can’t guarantee any macaroons, but I will no doubt still be blushing. (1005 W. Burnside)

And an update on the Washington, DC event: a number of you e-mailed or left comments to express an interest in coming that night, but I now need a formal RSVP. If you plan to attend, please e-mail cheeseandchocolate (at) gmail (dot) com to say so. The event will be at Ceiba on March 16 from 5:30 to 7:00 pm, with a cash bar, complimentary hors d’oeuvres, and books for sale. The DC event is now full. Whew! I’m so sorry that we cannot accommodate more of you; we’ve just run out of space.

I think that’s all for now. I anticipate that I won’t be able to post much for the next couple of weeks, but I will stop by to remind you of where I’ll be, and when, and at what time, and whatnot.

And when I get back, I’ll have a new Delancey update for you. Last week, the wood-burning oven arrived - that’s the first step in building the kitchen - and it’s beautiful. It weighs 3,600 pounds. Its arrival heralded two days of sweat, heavy lifting, and cement-mixing for Brandon, and for me, a few rolls of film and an early morning in my pajamas, helping to move it into position in the soon-to-be kitchen with the help of a plastic protractor, masking tape, and a cart that vaguely resembled a handtruck on steroids. Needless to say, I have some photographs for you. Although none of them feature my pajamas, so don’t get your hopes up.

Until then, be well, bake yourself some sweet potato pound cake, and thank you, always, for being here.

Sweet Potato Pound Cake
Adapted from Southern Cakes, by Nancie McDermott

I was introduced to this cake by my friend Shari, who co-curates the inspiring site this joy+ride. (That’s me in the current issue, #12. Thank you, sweet Shari.) She not only gave me the cookbook that contains this recipe, but she also posted an enticing photo of it on Flickr the other day. She has never led me astray in anything, so I took the hint. I immediately flipped on the oven and pulled some butter out of the fridge, and I suggest that you do the same.

This cake is perfect for late winter: moist, fragrant, warmly spiced, with a flavor a little bit like – and I mean this in a very good way – a spice doughnut. Or maybe an applesauce doughnut. In short, I am going to be making it for a long, long time. You can roast, peel, and mash the sweet potatoes ahead of time, and from there, the cake comes together fairly quickly and easily. The recipe comes with an optional buttermilk glaze, which I used and liked very much, but you could go either way. The glaze is mainly for added flavor and moisture: in my experience, it isn’t one of those types that sits prettily atop the cake, but rather soaks in like a syrup. The overall effect was dangerous. I think I ate about five slices on Saturday. Consider that a warning.

For the cake:
3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
½ tsp. salt
½ cup milk (low-fat is okay)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
4 large eggs
2 cups mashed cooked sweet potatoes

For the buttermilk glaze (optional):
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup sugar
4 Tbsp. (½ stick) unsalted butter, cubed
1 ½ tsp. cornstarch or flour
¼ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube or Bundt pan. (If your pan is nonstick, you can get away with just some cooking spray; no need to flour.)

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt. Whisk well. In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine the milk and vanilla.

In a large bowl, beat the butter, sugar, and light brown sugar until light and fluffy, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the sweet potatoes, and mix until the batter is combined. (The batter may look terrible at this point: curdled, weird, terrible. Don’t worry.) With the mixer on low speed, add half of the flour mixture. Beat to just incorporate. Then add half of the milk mixture, and continue to beat on low until well blended. Add the remaining flour, followed by the remaining milk, and beat on low until the batter is thick and smooth.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and bake for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the cake springs back when pressed lightly and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Run a thin knife around the edge to loosen the cake, and then carefully invert it onto the rack.

Meanwhile, make the glaze, if using. In a medium saucepan, combine the buttermilk, sugar, butter, cornstarch, and baking soda. Place it over medium heat, and bring it just to a gentle boil. Immediately remove it from the heat, stir well, and set it aside to cool to room temperature. Add the vanilla, and stir well.

Set the wire rack - with the cake atop it - over a rimmed sheet pan. Spoon the glaze through a fine-mesh sieve over the warm cake. (I recommend using a sieve because my batch of glaze had some little gelatinous bits of clumped cornstarch in it.)

Cool completely before serving.