Monica E. Smith

Monica E. Smith

Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas in Logan County—Gifts of the Season

Every now and then, everything falls into place. Yesterday was one such day...

It was a cold, snowy day, and I awoke thinking about all the things I needed to do before Christmas, planning and wondering if I would have enough time to accomplish all that I wanted. Of course, there is always time for a cup of coffee, so I sat in my favorite lounge chair with a hot cup and my dog by my side, making mental notes and plans for the day, the room heated by that penetrating, osmotic warmth only a wood fire can give. 

Soon I was out and about, doing some Christmas grocery shopping, and feeling very merry. The weather was cold and crisp and all before me was laid out in a soft white blanket, compliments of a fresh snow which had fallen a couple days before. The roads had been plowed, for the most part, and the ones that were still snow-covered had been flattened by previous traffic, and were quite driveable. So on the way home, Christmas carols blaring in the car, singing at the top of my lungs, I took a detour and turned off on a snowy country road.

I immediately knew I had made the right decision. After mere minutes of taking the turn, I was rewarded with the most beautiful sights. My first stop was a small horse ranch, where I spied a beautiful chestnut horse in the distance. I immediately pulled to the side of the road and got out of the car to take some pictures. To my surprise, the horse stopped, looked at me and trotted over to the fence to get a closer look. So I did the same, being careful not to mis-step in the deep snow. She greeted me as if I were a long-lost friend, lowering her great head over the fence, nuzzling me and braying softly, staying with me quite a while, as if she couldn't get enough of my affection and attention. Before I realized it, her foal had galloped beside us as well, shaking its head and wondering what all the excitement was about. They both were clothed in their long winter coats, hair, mane and tails blowing in the winter wind. I don't remember actually seeing horses in their winter finery this closely, and they were beautiful. It seems I had made their day; they certainly had made mine. They stayed a few minutes, then gave a whinny and off they ran—but not before I had taken some photographs.

I continued driving and soon came upon a a logging camp. Somehow, this sight was unexpected. I drove slowly by, as it was quite interesting to watch the work being done, managing to take a bit of video and a snapshot from my car window as I passed. I found it intriguing, as this scene is something I might normally only experience on The Discovery Channel, perhaps as seen through the eyes of Mike Rowe from "Dirty Jobs". And here it was in my back yard. It seems that even in frigid, snowy weather, the world must go on. Or, perhaps, especially in frigid, snowy weather, the world must go on...

I have always been fascinated with trains and railroad tracks. And, for some reason, they are even more attractive and appealing in the context of a snowy winter—decorated with the greenery of pine trees, bony fingers of bare tree limbs that seem to be pointing the way to life—much like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—the whispy dried brown briers and boskets peeking through the deep white snow on either side, and, yes, two deer who happened to cross the road just beyond the tracks, stopping briefly to consider me before bounding across the road, passing by a tiny covered bridge (red, of course)  to the safety of the somewhat greener grass on the other side. No picture here—except in my memory—as I was too mesmerized by this "Christmas Card" to engage the camera!

I passed many farms of various sizes, beautifully decked out in the colors of the season. Somehow, there is something very Christmasy about a red barn in a snow-covered field, a hay wagon decorated with a green wreath. I think, living in the country, I sometimes take for granted the beauty that is all around me. These sights are before me always, but I sometimes do not see them. Like all people, I lose focus and sight of what is important, concentrating on my own problems and dissatisfactions and becoming so involved in the details or negative aspects of things in my life, missing the entire purpose and beauty of life, as a whole, altogether. I guess it's pretty much not seeing the forest for the trees...

A small detour became several hours before I realized I needed to get home to my dog, throw another log into the woodstove, turn on the Christmas tree lights and prepare supper for my husband and I. I had not meant to be gone so long, but the detour had become a found opportunity which filled me with the Christmas spirit through and through. It had been a good decision, which led to a better day and an even greater appreciation and enjoyment of God's special Christmas gift to His children.

Especially now, at Christmastime, there are gifts aplenty, gifts that anyone can afford, gifts more meaningful, more precious and more lovely than any amount of money can buy. The world is closer than you think—even as near as just outside your window, around the corner, or down a country road. I encourage you to explore the world of your surroundings and to experience the true gifts of this season or any season. I assure you it will be a memory not forgotten, one that gratifies the eyes, the ears, the soul.

Peace, and Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good, warm and memorable Christmas night.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving!

We all know the story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. After their first harvest, the colonists of the Plymouth Plantation held a celebration with food and feasting in the fall of 1621. There are many varied and contradictory versions of this story. But while there were other smaller "thanksgiving"/harvest festivities since this event, well before George Washington, it was Washington's original proclamation signed by him on October 3, 1789 which marked the day, " Thursday, November 26 as "A Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer", and began the official reason for Thanksgiving Day, later to be made a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863.

At that time, Lincoln issued a proclamation which called for the observance of the fourth Tuesday of November as the national holiday. It was president Franklin D. Roosevelt who moved the holiday to the third Thursday of NovemberIN ORDER TO EXTEND THE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING SEASON IN AN EFFORT TO BOOST THE ECONOMY. (I guess politicians will always be politicians; they have a knack for removing significance from and cheapening even the sacred, all in the name of money ). In an effort to quell the storm of protests which arose from this action, Roosevelt again changed Thanksgiving in 1941 to the fourth Thursday in November, where it remains to this day.

Today I wish all of you a most content and happy celebration with family and friends, in the spirit so proclaimed by George Washington. May we "unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best." And may we be for God first and foremost, as He is for us. For "IF GOD BE FOR US WHO CAN BE AGAINST US?"--Romans 8:31

George Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to "recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Good Dog

I thought of you today
When happenstance brought me
To that road we last walked
And to the memory of your last breaths,
How I held your sweet, warm head
In my hands and whispered to you
Trying desperately to comfort you,
Willing myself to believe
You would be all right,
Willing you to know how much
You were loved, how much
Joy you brought to the lives
Of my children, to us all

I thought of you, today, buried
Under your beloved pear tree
And how you now nourish it
As it had once nourished you,
And I missed your playfulness
And the laughs you gave us
Missed the wonderful silliness
Of your sprightly, unfettered life
And yet the depth you brought
To my own, and I knew
I had been blessed

And I remembered my tears
Falling onto your limp ears then,
And how I prayed you had felt them,
Because in feeling them
You would have understood with certainty
The value of your life,
Believed without hesitation your worth,
Known beyond any doubt
That you had been a good dog

*Sadie was killed during a walk on a country road with her family. We could see nothing, as she had run a bit ahead of us; we heard only a screech, a thud and the squealing tires as the driver sped away from the scene. We found her lying by the side of the road as we ran over a hill to her side, in shock and not believing what had just happened. Though Sadie died in 1992, she returns to our thoughts again and again. She was a blessing to our family, and a very good dog who will always be missed.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Happy Birthday, America

This past Sunday, as Mass ended, the priest announced our recessional hymn: "America the Beautiful". I remember finishing a prayer when hearing that and immediately looked up in surprise, that uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. "Is a patriotic song appropriate for church? Did anyone else find the song selection just a little odd? Shouldn't we be singing something about, ummmm, God?"

The song began, and I remember enjoying the beauty of the melody and the lovely voices singing America's praise. Soon I fell right into the mood. And then I began to focus on the words. The chorus of each verse was more a plea for God's grace to shine upon our beautiful land, to keep her pure and right and just--and godly. "America the Beautiful" is not just a patriotic song. It is a prayer. Increasingly, prayer for America seems most appropriate these days.

America, you are suffering now. Even (especially) among our leaders, brotherhood is far from your shores. Yet, despite "tar balls" washing up on your silken beaches, oil spills and the trash we carelessly leave about, our increasing hatred and divisive actions all in the name of power and control--even unto the shedding of blood--your spacious skies remain beautiful, your purple mountains majestic, your seas still sparkling, for the most part. I have seen them and they are breathtaking! But for how long? What are we doing to each other and to this land we call home? God shed His grace on thee.

America, much of your wilderness still remains untamed, your cry of freedom yet echoing from the moment of your birth. As with all of life, mistakes have been made--are being made--and sins continue to be perpetrated against your children and etched into your lands. But if thy soul be confirmed by self-control, thy laws be born of liberty and Truth, those sins can be expunged. May God mend thine every flaw.

America, your heroes have been many. Some we know, most are unknown and uncelebrated. Thousands upon thousands have fought for your liberties and the preserving and sharing of your richness, giving their utmost, even unto their very lives, so that you may endure, that the God-given freedoms for which you stand may be ever wider embraced. We must not let you down. We must hold on and hold fast to the lessons of our founders, to the ideals you put forth, to the Constitution of the United States and the Republic for which it stands. Help us understand the real wealth of your land lies not in gems or oil or the almighty dollar, that all our successes be in kindness and unselfishness and nobleness and in Truth, and our gold be found in brotherhood. May God thy gold refine.

America, the magnificence of your cities and monuments and memorials still shines upon the land. But let us make new memorials by the way we live our very lives, that there might be no more human tears, no more hatred, but many more dreams. God shed His grace on thee.

America, we will not diminish all our forefathers knew to be true. We will strive to keep respect and civility and honor always as our banners and hold them high. We will strive to walk in the footsteps of those brave men and women whose selfless actions and sacrifices gave birth to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness and all that is good (rather than to the pursuit of power and control and self-indulgence), to the free and beautiful land that is America! God shed His grace on thee--and on us all, always and forever.

Happy Birthday, America...and many more.

America the Beautiful
Words by Katharine Lee Bates
Melody by Samuel Ward

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness.

America! America!
God mend thine ev'ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.

America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev'ry gain divine.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears.

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.
(Videotape by Monica E. Smith; Music: United States Navy Band and Sea Chanters Chorus)

Friday, July 02, 2010

Sand Box

Sand Box
(for Tony)

The scene is the same
Only the faces change
But the innocent are not protected
They are little boys sitting in tanks,
Pointing their guns at the enemy
"Bang, you're dead!"
They are gathered at mess or prayer
Or at rest, little boys playing
In front of the camera, compelling
Those at home to believe
They are fine and happy and, well...
So I believe—I must believe when I see
Those sweet little-boy faces
Smiling at me from thousands
Of miles away, playing in the sand
Of Fallujah and Marja, Kabul and Kandahar
Places that sound like made up little-boy names
Rather than killing fields

(pictures published with permission)

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Fish Story

The First Fish

          The first fish was the only fish
I ever caught. That morning it rained a soft, warm,
misty rain and I thought our trip would be ruined,
but Lester said it was perfect, that the rain would
bounce on the lake and distort what the fish see,
bringing them to the surface to eat bugs and bait
that had washed into the water. My day brightened.
And it was beautiful.
          So Lester, Sean, Scott and I set out
for a small lake near the Ohio-Indiana boarder
to catch some fish. We waited and re-baited, waited
and re-baited and I was beginning to think I was right
about the rain. But after a while, I felt a quick, strong tug
on my pole and I felt like Hemingway's Santiago must have
felt after finally catching his big fish. My fish was blue and
green and silver and all of six inches in length.
And it was beautiful.
          I asked if I could eat it and Lester said I should.
Since it was late and I was the only one to catch a fish,
we headed home. Lester cut open the fish
and gutted and filleted it and presented it to me.
And it was beautiful.
          I salted and peppered and dredged it in flour,
placing it carefully in a hot pan with melted butter.
It sizzled and crackled and the hot butter popped
and splattered, and the nutty, savory aroma made
my mouth water, and the fish was no longer blue and
green and silver, but crusty and golden brown.
And it was beautiful.
          I gingerly placed the little fish on a platter befitting
any trophy fish and ate every buttery morsel myself
with the satisfaction and delight of one who had
never before eaten. Sean said, "That's your fish, Monica!"
and Scott congratulated me and Lester smiled
a big smile that tinted his entire face red,
laughing as though he had caught the fish himself.
And it was beautiful.

(inspired by Mary Oliver's "The Fish", and the first fish I ever caught)

Sunday, April 04, 2010

O Death, Where is Thy Sting?

(Holy Saturday, St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio)

The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom (Read Each Year at Pascha)

Icon of the Resurrection
Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Is there anyone who is a grateful servant? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting? Let them now receive their wages! If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward; If any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first. To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows. He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor. The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.

He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hades when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, "You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below." 

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, O death, are annihilated! Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever! Amen!

(Video Excerpts: St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church
Columbus, Ohio; Easter 2009)

Saturday, April 03, 2010

He is Not There...

Mark 16: 1 - 7

1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Mag'dalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salo'me, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
2 And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen.
3 And they were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?"
4 And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; -- it was very large.
5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed.
6 And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.
7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you." 

Today when I awoke, I sat in complete silence, a cup of hot coffee, my little dog by my side, and enjoying the cool freshness of a new day. Usually, I need some kind of "noise", and so the television goes on as soon as I awake, even if I am not watching. But on this Holy Saturday, I needed only the silence. I needed only to hear the birds twittering as they flew from tree to tree, the mourning dove sing her solemn song. I needed only to watch the yet-bare branches waving in the early morning breeze outside my window, and the sun emerge from a clouded sky. I needed only to contemplate Him who made all these things, and the historic and world-shaking events which had transpired over a mere few days some 2000 years ago.

Holy Saturday has always been this way for me, even as a child; and we followed this same tradition with our children. I remember being taught to do "quiet things" from Good Friday afternoon until Easter, as we (even in our youthful minds) prepared for the Resurrection, as we gave due respect and honor to God. We may not have understood fully--lack of understanding does not  imply untruth--but there was no need. There is no need. Such is the way with matters of the heart.

Tonight, we will attend the Resurrection services, Liturgy and blessing of Easter baskets as is our tradition (in the Byzantine Catholic Faith), as I have done every Holy Saturday of my life. The services will continue into the small hours of Easter Sunday morning, after which we will share the blessed foods from which we have fasted with our family, in Celebration of the Resurrection. It is these practices which keep me sane in an insane world. It is these celebrations that give my life meaning where, otherwise, I am at a loss to find meaning. It is these traditions that make me whole, bring to me the peace I cannot find elsewhere. It is this faith and this belief in a loving God which makes life beautiful and worth living, as we await the eternal glory promised by God, in Christ Jesus who prepared the way for us to follow .

May Christ crucified touch each of you in a most special way this day, this Easter season; and May God bless us all with an increased faith, wisdom to know Truth and the desire and courage to live it.

(photos: St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church; Columbus, Ohio; Good Friday April 2, 2010)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Comfort Food

Top, My Brother and Sister and I
Bottom Left, My Mother (coming to call us in for hot chocolate!)

Tired of the snow yet? I can recall lying in bed as a child, in the early morning hours, waiting with butterflies in my stomach for that announcement of the news I already knew: "Schools will be closed today!".  And they were, usually  for the next two days as well. Snow in Cleveland meant instant vacation back then. The type of snow we have experienced these past few days in much of the country was the usual winter fare in Cleveland "back in the day".

The excitement would build as I curled up in a warm bed, planning my day. My sister and brother and I would wake up to a good, hot breakfast—which usually included cream of wheat, our favorite on such a cold, snowy day. We would force our mother to promise not to stir it so that soft, chewy lumps of grain would form and then eat it with butter, sugar and lots of milk, something I do to this day. After breakfast we bundled in our snowsuits, leggings (what ever happened to leggings?), boots, scarves and gloves, and somewhat resembling robots, headed outside for most of the day. Once outside we began making a snow fort out of the entire back yard. We would each focus on a particular corner of the yard and built our forts as high as we could with ice "bricks" which were broken off of mountains of snow, and then tunneling through the crusty drifts to prepare for the snowball war to soon follow. 

We never needed to be told to "find something to do". There was a whole world of things to do, given birth by our imaginations. Winter, summer, spring, fall, we were outside all day until supper, interacting with each other and our friends, enjoying the world around us, simply being children. As children we didn't need "love lives" then, we didn't have an unhealthy obsession with sex or interest in drugs or  experience anxiety from societal pressures constantly bombarding us with "be more". Perhaps it is our self-complacency as adults which is ever-increasingly manifested in our children. We didn't need to hear TV commercials focused on telling us to "Get up, get up, get up, be a player" or "Play an hour a day". Does it not seem odd and unnatural to hear social advertisements telling children to play? It does to me and it makes me sad. What has happened to childhood? What has happened to us, that we would allow such destruction of childhood?

After the war ended, frozen and wet, we headed back into the house to change into dry clothes and drink the hot chocolate that was keeping warm on the stove, waiting for us. The house was always warm, even in winter. The love and security we felt as children warmed us as no blanket ever could. And, perhaps, this is what I remember most about my childhood. We would rest easily at night, ready for sleep after a full day, knowing we were loved for who we were, that nothing we might do could change that, never doubting that we were the priority in our parents' lives. It was never something that had to be verbalized. It just was.

My father would come home after work, and supper was soon to follow. On every Saturday, and especially on snowy, winter days, supper would consist of a huge pot of beef soup. It was my father's favorite meal. And when I cook that same soup today, the wafting fragrance serves up a feast of warm and satisfying memories which nourish me and keep me grounded.

Perhaps the word that best describes my childhood is "comfort". I did not know the pain or anxiety of having to take on adult roles. I was a child and concerned with those things befitting a child. My parents knew how to love, each other and us. Neither was overly concerned about place in life, and both were concerned more with their children's well-being than the views of the world. There were no power struggles, within the family or society. The focus was on our welfare and happiness and our growth as individuals. There was love. And there was consolation and solace in knowing it would always be that way.

And as we drifted off, sleep—and peace—came to us sweet and warm. It drifted down from the rafters with the love and laughter which protected us when we were children.  And as I sleep each night, the memories, sweet and warm,  ring from distant rafters, drifting down to comfort me, ground me, slow me down when this world begins to move a little too fast. 

Comfort Food

We always laughed
As daddy ate his soup
From a large serving bowl
Filled to the brim
With hot savory beef broth,
A mountain of thin noodles
And a dash of Tabasco,
Pausing every now and then
To wipe his perspiration-covered face
And sit back, gratified, proclaiming
"I like soup no matter what flavor it is!"

We would race to drain
Our bowls in order to be first
To claim the prize—the juicy bones
Layered with chunks of soft beef,
Chewy gristle and mouth-watering
Beefy marrow which we would
Spread on our heavily salted meat

This was Saturday supper
Every week, every month,
All the years of our childhood
And the contentment
Of those early years was not only
From young, full bellies
But the love and security
That seemed to hover
Around our table, cloaking us
From the elements
Of change, floating

Like the rich, golden bubbles
Swirling in our Saturday soup


Laughter rose
And rang from the rafters
Drifting down softly
To comfort at night.
Sleep was sweet and warm
Within the cocoon of family
In my youth.

Laughter rose
And rang from the rafters
Drifting down softly
To comfort at night.
Sleep was sweet and warm
Within the cocoon of family
When my children were young.

Long-ago laughter echoes
And rings from distant rafters
Drifting down softly
To comfort at night.
Memories are sweet and warm
Within the cocoon of family
As I sleep.

Thank you for reading; and keep warm...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Go Forth and Create--New Recipe from the Expresso Cafe Kitchen

art form: noun 

An activity or a piece of artistic work that can be regarded as a medium of artistic expression. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)
Cooking—as sure as painting, sculpture, writing, music—is most certainly an art form! The experience is not only in the creation itself, but in the reward of sharing and enjoyment in eating with another.

I have always loved those desserts made with  phyllo (filo) dough. You know filo. Those papery thin layers upon layers upon layers of dough used in making baklava. while I love eating foods created with filo, I absolutely hate working with it. It's so "fussy". You have to carefully thaw it forever, keep the flimsy stack moist with a towel while you work very gingerly preparing each delicate layer for your creation; and still some of it dries out, cracks and tears. Your high hopes for a special dessert are dashed to the floor with tidbits of friable filo. 

I was watching the "Contessa" on the food channel yesterday; she was making the most delectable-looking puff pastry dessert with pecans and cinnamon. Impressionable as I am, I had to have it right then. I was going over the ingredients in my head and thought I had everything I needed to create this gods' delight. Butter and cinnamon I always have. Nuts? Yes—in the freezer left over from my Christmas cookie baking. Puff pastry? Yes, I remembered the box in the deep freezer! Oh, no—it's F I L O!

Not to be denied, and because my mouth was already watering for this buttery dessert, I bravely proceeded to create. However, I did not have the time or the patience to "properly" bake something with filo dough. So, throwing caution—and everything I know about filo—out the window, I began. (As in writing, once you have learned and know the rules, feel free to break them.)

I took the filo out of the box—and because I did not have at least two hours to let it thaw—ignoring everything I knew about properly thawing it, I stuck it in the microwave for about a minute. It was not pretty, but it was usable. After laying it out on the butcher block, I stared at it for a minute or two and decided I was going to cut the entire stack in hunks. I made two incisions down the length and two more crosswise, giving me nine little stacks of filo. While doing this, 1 1/4 sticks of butter were melting away in the microwave. I then threw the little sections of filo into the bowl of melted butter—and this is where it gets down and dirty and downright fun, akin to a kid playing in the sandbox—with my hands, I tossed them around, making sure they were all pretty well saturated with the butter, and somewhat separated. I then added some brown sugar, cinnamon, a little salt and the pecans and tossed again, making sure it was all evenly distributed. I buttered a shallow pan, emptied the filo mixture into the pan lightly patted it in and baked it. What came out was the most delightful, buttery, "crunchewy", satisfying dessert I had made in a long time, and took only about 45 minutes from oven to mouth. It was actually a great success. Barefoot or not, the Contessa had nothing over me!

Lesson: DO NOT BE AFRAID TO COOK! It's fun, relaxing, very rewarding and very artistic; and gives you a wonderful sense of accomplishment I hope you try this recipe—and, add something to make it your own. As I'm sitting here, I have already thought to add apple slices, other fresh or dried fruits, flavorings, jam, coconut. The possibilities are as endless as one's imagination. So, go forth and create! I'd love to hear how your creations turn out.

Buttery Pecan Phyllo Cake

1 16-oz box filo dough
1 1/4 - 1 1/2 sticks butter (I like I Can't Believe It's Not Butter or Smart Balance) 
dash of salt
1 tsp cinnamon (or more, to your taste)
1/2 cup brown sugar (light or dark; more or less to your taste; I used light brown sugar, about 1/2 cup)
1 1/2 cups pecan pieces (could be made with other nuts; I used pecans)
juice of one orange (optional)  

Remove filo from box. Keeping wrapped in inner paper, microwave on high for approximately one minute, just long enough to unfold. Unfold stack of filo and place flat on counter. Cut two equal lengthwise and 2 equal crosswise slices, making nine separate stacks of dough.

Melt butter and drop in stacks of filo, mixing to equally distribute butter. Add remaining ingredients and using hands, mix and distribute, breaking up and separating some of the filo stacks.

Pour into buttered, shallow baking pan, approximately 9 X 10 (this was the size of my baking pan; however, any similar-sized shallow pan will work. The important thing is to shape the mixture into a square/rectangle of about 1/2" thickness) 

Bake in center of oven on 350 degrees, for approximately 20 - 25 minutes, or until the bottom is golden brown and the top begins to brown.

Remove from oven and, while cooling, sprinkle the juice of one orange over the top. Serve by cutting into squares/pieces with vanilla ice cream or frozen cool whip.  

Keeps well overnight; no need to refrigerate; just cover and set on counter. I know this because I am eating a big slab as I write this, and IT IS HEAVENLY!

Happy Eating!

(see this recipe and more at the(Expresso Cafe Kitchen)