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Archive for March, 2011

We tap our red maple tree using a tap, some plastic tubing, and empty milk jugs.

The plastic tubing helps keeps the bugs out, and the milk jugs provide convenient storage.

(The neighbors’ kids drink the milk)

 

Tapping the tree

The sap is reduced in batches throughout the season. Otherwise we would have 40 gallons of sap stacked in the garage!

The stove was obtained specially for this purpose. Other (more common?) uses include deep-frying turkeys, and boiling lobsters.

Boiling the sap with an industrial strength stove

 

To boil the sap down to the correct concentration without burning requires extreme accuracy.

Good thing my family is so good with precision.

 

 

Making the syrup requires intense concentration

After the syrup is ready, it’s poured hot into jars. As the air cools, the jars are sealed and the syrup is safe for the season.

The darker syrup is actually a batch made from sap gathered later in the season. I wonder what makes the difference?

Maple syrup. Note that one jar has already been eaten.

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New England's Ambrosia**

Every year Maine celebrates a holiday known as Maple Syrup Sunday. In 2008, this holiday happened to fall just one week after I moved to Wiscassett. I celebrated by visiting a local farm, where we toured a syrup barn filled with the heady aroma of maple syrup steam. Then we poured outside to enjoy maple syrup ice cream sundaes and soak up the late March sun.

To clarify: maple syrup is nothing like Aunt Jemimah’s. If you have the misfortune of living anywhere other than New England, you may not be aware of the difference between this sacred syrup and its $2 substitute. As someone who grew up tapping maple trees (my parents have been tapping a red maple for the past fifteen years) I can tell you that there is no comparison.

Maple syrup is made from the sweet sap of a maple tree, which runs only six weeks out of the year, from mid-February to late March. (The season is that weird transition period when the days are above freezing and the nights are below.) You tap the tree by drilling a hole and inserting a metal “tap”: the sap drips out into a bucket or, in my parents’ case, a rube-goldberg contraption involving long pieces of rubber tubing and empty milk jugs. If you’re tapping a sugar maple tree, it may take 30 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup – in my family’s case, my dad estimates that the ratio is more like 40:1.

To make the syrup you put the sap in a giant pot over heat and boil the heck out of it. As the water boils off, the sugar becomes increasingly concentrated. The more concentrated the sugar, the higher the boiling point and the hotter the syrup gets. When it reaches 219 degrees fahrenheit, its ready. If it goes above that, it burns and you ruin the whole batch.

That’s one reason why maple syrup is sacred. But the real reason is the taste. That’s why this year I invited some friends out of the city to celebrate our own version of Maple Syrup Day. The subtle flavor of my family’s syrup is like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere else. Poured over waffles, with fresh fruit on the side, it’s divine.

For me, tree tapping is one of the only reasons to tolerate February. And that first taste of maple syrup straight off the spoon is an early sign of spring.

Weather: 47 degrees and sunny.

Moods:
Hannah: 6 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. Still defrosting.
Anna: A stoic 6.5

**Photo take from the gluten free for good blog, which is actually a lovely blog, although my personal leanings are towards gluten. Lots of it.

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Anna and I obviously both have weather on the mind today, since she posted her blog post just as I was mid-sentence on mine.

Instead of writing today, I’m going to share a clip from one of my all-time favorite films. I think this scene accurately represents how I’m feeling about March right now. Just imagine that the mother embodies “winter,” the father embodies “spring,” and the grandma is the snowclouds hovering dangerously over concord today.

Oh yeah, and I’m James Dean.

*the moment of truth is at 0:52

** sorry for the subtitles.

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I’m generally envious of the weather in San Francisco, but now I have visual evidence showing the steady and pleasant temperatures there compared to our volatile hot and cold swings.

That proof is in the form of an ubercool weather visualizer called Weather Spark that two Bay Area computer scientists recently launched. It’s still in beta, but well worth the visit.

If you want to see how Boston compares to San Francisco, or say, Sao Paolo, you can. If you want to see whether memories on your emotional calendar match up with weather reports on particular days, you can double check. Or you can look up the current temperature. There’s tons of data to mine and explore, so enjoy!

Weather: 37 degrees and overcast at Logan International Airport, according to Weather Spark.

Moods:

Anna – 6.5 out of 10.

Hannah – 4 out of 10. It’s been snowing.

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You wouldn’t know it was spring by peering out the window today. After warm temperatures and sweater weather, it feels like February yet again. But despite the snow, today marks the first day of spring. I’ll take it!

A few posts ago, Hannah mentioned my recent blogging block. Sometime around the beginning of March, I just couldn’t get excited about self-analysis. I tried. I really did. For example:

What about March personally resonates with me?
Nothing, other than vague (tame) memories of spring break.

Are there weather events or cultural milestones that impact my emotional calendar this month?
Huh? Ummm. No.

Who likes self-reflection when winter refuses to gracefully exit?
Is that rhetorical?

With that attitude, I have a feeling the crocuses bloomed several days before I looked around long enough to notice them this Saturday. Hannah, at least, says she first saw them last week.

For today, they’ll be buried under a thin layer of slushy snow. I’m hopeful that I’ll spot them again soon, and this time as soon as they emerge—not five days after. And then I’ll marvel (again) at how quickly things change.

Weather: Snow.

Moods:

Anna –5 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. No sun, no fun.

Hannah – 6 out of 10. She had a nice weekend.

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Happy Purim!

When I was a kid, I used to have a picture book called “The Adventures of K’ton Ton.” K’ton means little in Hebrew, and K’ton Ton is a variation on Tom Thumb, only with a Jewish twist. My favorite K’ton Ton story was when he fell into the hamantaschen dough on Purim. My mother says this is impossible because he was “just like a real boy, only tiny,” but as I recall, he was baked into a cookie and popped out just as his mother was giving the cookie away to the neighbors.

Giving away baskets of hamantaschen is just one of the traditions that make Purim the most fun holiday on the Jewish calendar. Purim celebrates the story of Queen Esther, who saved the Jews from the king’s adviser, a man known as Haman the Evil. When we were kids we would go to a party at the synagogue where we were handed groggers (really obnoxious noisemakers) and given the important task of drowning out Haman’s name anytime it was said aloud.

Purim is also a costume party: people dress up as characters from the story of Esther or, really, anything else you can think of. In 2008 I celebrated Purim in Tel Aviv, where it is thought of as an “Israeli Mardi Gras.” That was when I learned another interesting Purim tradition: according to longstanding practice, adults are obligated to “drink until you can’t tell the difference between good and evil.”

Sometimes I wonder whether that’s because of the end of the Purim story, in which the Jews exact revenge by slaughtering entire villages associated with Haman. But mostly I think it’s just an excuse for a good time.

Purim started at sundown last night. I had no wild parties planned this year, but my dad and I did make hamantaschen, the traditional Purim snack. The word “hamantaschen” means Haman’s Hat – Ashkenazi (European) Jews say that the triangular cookies are in the shape of a hat. But I learned today that according to Sephardic (Middle Eastern) tradition, the cookies are said to be shaped like Haman’s ears.

My plan yesterday was to type up a hamentaschen recipe and share it here for Food Friday (okay, Food Sunday). But unfortunately, despite trying two different recipes, we were unable to find one we really liked. Of the two recipes we tried, one was a sugar cookie base made with oil instead of butter, and the other was more like a pie dough, with the butter crumbled in. But the pie-crust recipe, from a cookbook of traditional yiddish recipes, was weirdly textured and required some emergency modification. And the cookie-dough recipe, from the New York Times, didn’t hold its shape and had a strange oily aftertaste. Still fun to eat, but a little disappointing. K’tan Tan would never have approved.

Do you have a hamantaschen recipe that you would recommend?

Weather: sunny and thirty five degrees.

Mood:

Hannah: 7 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale. More on the good mood to come later this week!

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Something to look forward to.**

“It’s not spring yet.”

That’s what I wrote in response to an e-mail from an overenthusiastic mycologist acquaintance, whose message included photographs of young mushrooms that, he insisted, were signs of better weather to come.

That’s also why, despite numerous efforts to write here last week, I just couldn’t seem to produce a post. “I have nothing else to say about the seasons,” Anna told me last Monday and I knew just what she meant. It feels like it’s been winter forever and I’m burnt out on seasonal embrace. We should all just stay inside.

This past week, however, I did experience two important personal milestones on my emotional calendar. Despite the above statement, I’ve actually been running outside (giant piles of snow permitting) on and off all winter. Usually I wear a carefully constructed synthetic outfit that keeps me dry, warm, and aerodynamic. But one day last week, I realized with something like bemusement that it was actually warm enough to run in shorts.

I’m so good at layering that it’s possible I hadn’t felt fresh air on my skin since last October. Running down the Somerville streets last week with my knees exposed was, quite possibly, the most liberating experience I’ve had in months. There’s a song that’s been on the radio lately which goes, “Your winter is a prison.” Last week, I felt at least temporarily as if I had broken free.

And then on Saturday, walking outside my grandma’s apartment, I saw my first crocuses! It’s true that flowers come earlier to New York than they do to Boston. But, my flower discovery led to a revelation: it turns out that the spring equinox is only a week away.

Maybe there is something to write about after all.

Weather: a balmy 38 degrees and sunny.

Moods:
Hannah: 6 out of 10 on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping  for joy” scale. Not happy about daylight saving.

Anna: last time I checked, 7 out of ten. Now she’s in minnesota, where it’s probably about 10 degrees outside and snowing.

**Image Credit to Patty Hankins **

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I keep trying to figure out March. It’s not a powerful month for me. It teases you with its sunlight and then destroys your good spirits with a freak snowstorm that makes you wish you hadn’t optimistically stored your winter hat.

When I think of March, it’s more or less a blank slate. I can’t identify any hotspots on my emotional calendar. Not a warm patch. Nothing.

I had to rack my brain before I realized what I used to associate March with: spring break.

Unlike other, enviable schools, Cornell only had one week off for spring break. Most years, I visited my friend at Yale and went to her classes. Not the rabblerousing spring break one might expect. On the other hand, this yearly tradition led to the discovery that I could understand basic Portuguese. And, in fact, these interludes with a wonderful friend were exactly what I needed after the stress of my own semester.

Then came senior year. Senior year was it—the last hurrah. Time to go big or go home. I chose to go to Idaho.

Well, let me be more specific. I chose to go to Sun Valley, Idaho to stay with one of my best friends (let’s call her Becks) from Cornell and her family. I had it all planned—while everyone in Cancun tanned and Snookified themselves (let’s pretend everyone knew who Snooki was in 2007), I would learn to ski and spend the evenings relaxing with a glass of wine, deep in discussion with Becks and her family.

On Day 1, after mastering the bunny slope under the tutelage of Becks’s father, a former ski ranger, I decided to try my luck on a larger slope. The ski lift deposited me at the top of the hill and I started making my way down the mountain. Unfortunately, while watching a pack of four-year-olds zoom past me, I hit a patch of ice, fell forward, and heard a pop. Fortunately, that pop was my binding releasing—not my knee self-destructing. But based on the searing pain that followed, I wasn’t sure. So I ungracefully righted myself once color returned to my face, skied down the slope on wobbly legs, and decided I could hang in there for another run. Bad move. Run number 2 also ended in a fall, which only exacerbated my previously sprained knee. That put an end to my dreams of downhill skiing. I spent the rest of spring break hobbling around Sun Valley, which, on the upside, led to many more conversations with Becks and her family, and far more cheese plates than one could imagine.

But I still find it odd that this memory sits in its own separate compartment, seemingly detached from March. Instead, it marks the transition from winter to spring, regardless of the month—hence the melting and refreezing of snow that shattered my plans…and almost my knee.

Weather: Sunny with blue skies. 41 degrees.

Moods:

Anna – 6.5 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale.

Hannah – 4 out of 10. Too much to do.

 

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No scones here!

This weekend I’m doing a two-day Wilderness First Responder recertification. I’ll be renewing my CPR and first aid skills. I’ll also be learning all sorts of emergency tricks for situations like: what to do if you fall on your ice-pick while climbing in the White Mountains in January. Or how to respond to a snake bite in the back country in Arizona. It should be a lot of fun.

Of course, now that I live in Somerville, wilderness survival is less relevant than it was three years ago, when I took the original course. These days, my emergency survival kit includes things like an extra T pass, several Starlite mints, and a travel toothbrush. Just in case.

And when things get really desperate (like they did last week), my response rarely involves binding a broken limb with twigs, an old t-shirt, and a sleeping pad. Instead, I turn to baked goods, like the Emergency Scones that I made last week. The recipe, modified from epicurious, is below. Whether you’re feeling desperate or not, I recommend these for a delightful Sunday morning treat.

I’ve also included some tricks for working butter into flour, and for not having to go out and buy buttermilk (especially during a snowstorm). Naturally you should feel free to disregard.

Pea-Sized Pieces: the trick to making these scones is crumbling the butter into pea-sized bits. If you’ve ever made a really good pie crust before, you know that this is what makes flakiness happen – each pea-sized bit melts into a thin film that separates the layers of dough. If the bits are too big, you’ll get uneven dough. If they’re too small, you’ll get a heavy dough. And if you smear them together as if you were making cookies, then you’ll get, well, cookies. To make pea-sized bits: take a stick of cold butter and dice it as if it was an onion. Cut it lengthwise and widthwise until you have lots of discreet, rectangular butter bits that you can throw into the flour mixture. Dump the butter into the dough. Then use your hands and break the bits up until they are pea-sized, or really a little bit smaller. More like a lentil. Keep in mind, once you add the wet ingredients, that you want to keep those butter bits intact as you mix the batter.

Buttermilk Substitute: Buying buttermilk is silly since I never use it and it goes bad quickly. I mixed together 1/4 cup plain yogurt and 1/2 cup milk. Then I squeezed in the juice from half a lemon, mixed, and let it sit while I made the batter. Tasty, cheap, and I didn’t have to go to the store!

Emergency Scones

  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I used white whole wheat, plus some whole wheat, plus some white. go crazy.)
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, diced
  • grated peel from one lemon
  • 3/4 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips. (Or chop up regular chocolate chips, or a bar of chocolate).
  • 3/4 cup chilled buttermilk (or 1/4 cup yogurt, 1/2 cup milk, and the juice from half a lemon – see above)
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Whisk together dry ingredients: flour, 1/3 cup sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and lemon peel.

3. Add butter and work in until lentil sized. (see above for some tips.) Mix in chocolate chips.

4.In a separate bowl, whisk together milk/buttermilk, egg yolk, and vanilla. Pour into dry ingredients and mix gently to keep the butter balls intact.

5. According the original recipe, you can now take this dough, shape it into a large cheese-wheel on a lightly floured surface, and cut it into nice triangles. Instead, I scooped it up with my hands and formed it into scone-sized balls. Array the balls/triangles on a greased cookie sheet.

6. Sprinkle sugar on top.

7. Bake for 20 minutes or until crusty and a toothpick comes out clean.

Weather:

34 degrees and sunny. A great leap forward from yesterday’s single digits.

Moods:

Hannah: 6 and TGIF on the “can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale.
Anna: 6 and really antsy.


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The walk from the T to my apartment isn’t terrible. It’s not great either. I live 12 minutes away from the nearest station and the walk never feels long when I’m on my way to work, but returning from an evening event, it can seem treacherous. If there’s one thing that keeps me from going out at night, it’s that 12-minute walk back to my apartment, along the cold, dark, and not particularly well-lit sidewalks of Somerville. I can deal with the time spent on the dysfunctional green, orange, and red lines. Not the thought of The Late-Night Walk.

Last night I had yet another meeting in the financial district. I stayed put after it officially ended, throwing around ideas and getting updates from friends. Then I picked up a tray of sandwiches that were going to be abandoned unless I gave them a home in my empty refrigerator, realized I had left my heavy scarf at work, and darted out of the building into the depths of South Station, emerging 30 minutes later in Cambridge, still carrying my unwieldy sustenance-laden tray. Then I set out on The Late-Night Walk.

Without my scarf, the wind was biting. And given the tray, I couldn’t exactly fold into myself to conserve heat. So I hurried along, checking my surroundings, jumping over patches of ice, and thinking “almost there” until I was, indeed, almost home. Then the wind whipped up. For an instant, I tensed, anticipating the moment when the wind would take all the wind out of my lungs, leaving me breathless. Instead, the cold air entered the collar of my coat—unfortified without my scarf—and rushed down the front of my body, escaping at the bottom of my zipper.

Instead of discomfort, the chill triggered a surge of energy. Of exhilaration. And rather than shivering and gulping air, I ran forward, full of wind-induced vigor, happy to almost be home.

Weather: Cold, but blue skies. This morning at 7:30am it was 11 degrees. But it felt like

-15 with wind-chill.

Moods:

Anna – 7 out of 10 on the “so miserable I can’t get out of bed” to “jumping for joy” scale.

Hannah – 7 out of 10. Unreasonably  happy.

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