Mad About the Boy

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Showing off the bling at EmporiYUM. Photo by Relish Decor

I hope to use the months between now and our I do’s to document some wedding related thoughts, musings, advice, and memories. Next spring, smnthabella will go back to its regularly scheduled programming. Feel free to tune out until then if weddings aren’t your thing.

The moment before you get engaged is like the moment before you open your eyes in the morning. The world is nebulous. Black and blue blobs morph and shift behind your eyelids, a Pollack painting on private view. This day could be anything, this moment could lead anywhere. It holds endless potential. You want to freeze time, to stay here always. And, for just a moment, time obliges. Seconds elongate and you settle in a bit deeper. But just as you lean back into the warm mud of the moment, it falls away. Your thoughts have gone too far and wrenched you back to reality.

Sensations flood into you: the aroma of coffee brewing, a too loud garbage tuck rumbling by the window, the taste of last night’s toothpaste coating your mouth, a crease in the pillowcase pressing into your cheek, and, finally, a burst of bright light punctures through the moody splotches. The spell is broken. You are awake.

That is what the moment before you get engaged is like. The world collapses for a split second and then rapidly expands back out, leaving you dazzled and disoriented. You smile and cry and say ‘yes’- or, in my case, ‘yes, no, yes’.

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My amazing vintage ring with the gorgeous bouquet Jake put together.

By the time Jake proposed to me, I had been suffering from what I termed ‘fainting-goat syndrome’ for over a month. Essentially, this consisted of me going into shock and hyperventilating any time he reached into his pocket in my presence. As Jake often says, I never feel anything halfway. Eagerness for our engagement was no exception.

When he offered to pick me up after work during one of his visits to Frederick, I didn’t think twice about it. We often went on walks together through the cute downtown area. It was a nice way to have some time alone to chat, especially since we were living with our families. Then I realized how cold it was outside. Plus, in typical Samantha fashion, I was eager to grab a cocktail at our favorite bar. “Couldn’t we just go straight to VOLT?”, I pleaded. He stayed the course and steered us in the opposite direction, our arms linked against the chill.

At this point my fainting goat senses were ringing the alarm. I stopped walking and demanded to know, “Is this happening?”

“Is what happening?”

“THIS!”

“Oh. No. That isn’t happening.”

“Okay, great because, as you know, yesterday was a really stressful day and I’m just not ready right now.”

We continued up the hill together, huddled for warmth. After a few more minutes, I stopped again.

“I think this is happening.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I can just tell. I’m gonna pat you down!”

A threat that I delivered on, much to my horror. Poor Jake! What kind of crazed person frisks their partner for an engagement ring?! Luckily, the pat down came up empty. My suspicions at ease, we walked toward Baker Park. Just as we crossed the street, I paused for a third time.

“Where are we going? I’m freezing!”

“Just come on” he said, smiling.

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A few roses still clung on for dear life.

The park stretched out around us, dark except for the brightly lit fountain and distant bell tower. We walked down the steps toward the empty concrete basin. It had been emptied of water when temperatures dropped below freezing. Suddenly, he dropped down on one knee and produced the ring he had miraculously been able to conceal.

“Samantha Noel Amberg, will you marry me?”

The moment hits, BOOM, and then passes. Breath and heartbeat return.

“Yes! No! Yes!”, I managed to gasp out between sobs. The ‘no’ definitely threw him off, even though it was only an expression of overjoyed incredulity rather than an indication of doubt regarding our union. We celebrated with kisses, calls to loved ones, and, finally, cocktails at VOLT.

XXXX,

Samantha Bella

P.S. Soundtrack to my week provided by the dulcet tones of Dinah Washington.

Chocoholics Anonymous

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A few weeks ago I found myself in desperate need of chocolate. The small business I work for was in the middle of a huge move, our brains and bodies were depleted.

Normally I wouldn’t identify myself as a ‘chocoholic’, but in this case my appetite had a distinctly cocoa-flavored note to it. It made me wonder, is there a scientific link between stress and chocolate cravings? After a little Google searching, it appears as if the answer is yes – chowing on chocolate releases a ‘bliss molecule’ called anandamide. And boy did I need a dose. 

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I found the source of my confectionary high on Deb Perelman’s fantastic Smitten Kitchen blog. A rich coffee cake perfumed with cinnamon and studded with chocolate chips. I didn’t have any sour cream on hand, so I substituted whole milk yogurt. I also swapped in brown sugar for the cinnamon topping, and that was a stroke of genius if I do say so myself. The cake is gorgeously rich, with the pillowy appearance of an overstuffed armchair. Eat it warm or cold, several times a day as needed.

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Yogurt Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake

Adapted slightly from Smitten Kitchen

Cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

3 large eggs, separated

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups whole milk yogurt

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoon table salt

Filling and Topping

2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F. While the oven heats, grease a 9-x-13-inch baking pan. If you’re worried about it sticking, cover the bottom with a rectangle of parchment paper.

Cream butter with 1 1/2 cups of sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat in egg yolks (keep whites reserved) and vanilla. Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together into a separate smaller bowl. Alternately add in yogurt and dry ingredients into butter mixture, mixing after each addition. The batter should be thoroughly mixed and very thick. In a separate bowl, whip eggs whites until stiff, then gently fold into batter. This can be a bit tricky, but don’t give up!

In a small bowl, use a fork to mix together the brown sugar and cinnamon for filling and topping.

Use a spatula to spread half the batter in the bottom of greased pan. Then, sprinkle the cinnamon sugar over the batter, distributing evenly. Spoon the remaining batter into the pan and smooth with a spatula. Sprinkle the remaining chocolate chips and cinnamon sugar onto the batter. Using gentle pressure and the palm of your hand, gently press the chocolate chips into the batter. Just enough that they stick and will not all roll to the center as the cake billows and bakes.

Bake on the center rack for approximately 50 minutes, rotating halfway through baking. The cake is done when a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Pièce De Résistance

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My kitchen is coated with a fine layer of flour, my nails are caked with dough, and I am eating the most delicious piece of toast I have ever tasted. Ladies and gentlemen, you have to get your hands on a slice of this stuff.

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 Late last night, I mixed up a spoonful of starter with a bunch of flour; in the morning I faced the moment of truth, did my levain have enough oomph to lift a loaf of bread? Thankfully, it rose to the occasion (pun intended) and bobbed beautifully to the surface during Robertson’s float test (more details on that here). This unleashed a whole new set of anxious emotions…as Sherlock Holmes would say, the game was afoot.

That day was spent carefully weighing ingredients, adjusting temperatures, and generally coddling the dough like it was a newborn infant. Although the Tartine Country Loaf requires minimal effort and absolutely no kneading, it demands unending patience. You simply can not rush the process. Every 20-30 minutes during the bulk fermentation the dough must be ‘turned’, a process which can last over four hours. I’ve found those short intervals to be the perfect span of time for maxing out my productivity on various tasks. In half an hour you can wash all of the dishes (the least appealing, but most practical option), finish a chapter in the book that you’ve been meaning to read ( I would highly recommend this one), or take a nap (just make sure to set an alarm). If you bake bread, you will get shit done.

When the time came for shaping the loaves I had already crossed off every item on my day’s to-do list. This next step was tricky for me, even with Robertson’s expertly photographed step-by-step instructions. They weren’t as perfect as his taut, domed balls of dough, but I think they turned out alright.

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These little babies were left to rest for their final rise, a step that allows the dough to develop its distinctly complex flavor. Then I popped them in the oven at a blistering 500 degrees and hoped for the best! I used a cast iron combo cooker as recommended in the book and I honestly think it is what allowed me to achieve such great results. If you want to bake this bread, cough up the $40 and buy one.

When I pulled my bread out, I immediately heard the crust crackle as it contracted in the cool kitchen air. This is what Robertson calls “the song of bread” and let me tell you, it was music to my ears. As I cut into the cooled loaf, a perfectly pearlescent interior revealed itself beneath a burnished surface. The flavor was floral, milky, with just a hint of that classic sourdough tang. In short, I was in carbohydrate heaven. Tartine bread will certainly be a regular staple in my kitchen, my starter and I have a long, delicious future to look forward to.

The Awkward Phase

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What’s that smell? No, it’s not a hunk of provolone you forgot to put back in the fridge. Follow your nose, and it will lead you straight to a small bowl in a corner of the dining room. At this point the starter is, in Robertson’s words,  “very ripe”. Yeah, I’ll say it’s ripe.

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Now that I’ve got a stinky mess of frothy flour on my hands, the next step is to discard 80% and feed the little bugs living in the remaining 20%. Luckily, the organisms are relatively low maintenance, requiring a fresh dose of flour and water only once every 24 hours.

The goal is to cultivate a wild and thriving community of yeasts and bacteria. One that will be strong enough to leaven a loaf to lusty heights, throwing a gorgeous ‘ear’ (yes, that is an actual bread baking term) with impressive oven spring. The wild cultures also add a certain je ne sais quoi that is missing in breads made with commercial yeast. Think of a vanilla bean versus vanilla extract-they both get the job done, but one has the soul of vanilla. The starter is the soul of bread.

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My starter doesn’t rise and fall as predictably as it will, ultimately, need to. But I am keeping the faith. If I nurture it through these awkward adolescent days, then this ugly duckling can become a beautiful swan. Or at least a slightly less stinky duckling.

Stunning art by Heather McCaw Kerley, via the Jealous Curator

For Starters

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My hands plunged wrist-deep into impossibly silky flour, a bit of tepid water was blended in, and now I wait. Like a father sent to pace while his wife enters labor, I am antsy – even jittery. The unassuming glass bowl with a towel haphazardly thrown over it contains my “Tartine Bread” sourdough starter. Or at least I hope it does. If the right microorganisms are nestled within that inert, glue-like paste then I will begin a month long journey culminating in a loaf of bread.

But not just any bread. Creamy, fissured, auburn, floral, and pearlescent are just a few of the praises Chad Robertson heaps on his famed classic country loaf. Sexy right? In fact he is quite the romantic, a scruff sporting surfer from the Bay Area who is not afraid to wax poetic about the shattering of a crust or flavor of a custardy crumb. Seriously, check this man out.

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However, it’s thanks to another person that I have arrived here, jiggling my feet nervously over a bowl of sludge. That man is Michael Pollan. I somehow managed to go through the first 24 years of my life without reading a single word by him. Sure, his modern-classic “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was on my radar (I come out from under this rock sometimes), yet I never cracked the spine. Instead, while searching for an audiobook on a recent trip to NYC, I fell headfirst into “Cooked”.

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In this treat of a book, Pollan’s journalistic wit pairs perfectly with his chosen subject matter, the transformative process of cooking. Each section is centered around one of the four worldly elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Woven throughout the pages are recipes, mythological tales, history lessons, and a heavy dose of humor. It was truly a pleasure to read…even if it left my stomach growling after every chapter.

At one point, he dives down the rabbit hole of bread baking. Pollan visits a Wonderbread plant, a grain mill, and several artisanal bakeries before tackling Tartine Bread’s country loaf. His obsession with this “perfect” loaf borders on religious fanaticism and I was clearly converted by his proselytizing. Now I’ll have to wait to see if my offering to the sourdough gods is worthy of microscopic, bubbling life.

(If you’re interested in embarking on your own Tartine Bread quest, purchase the book here or consult the abridged recipe posted in the New York Times.)