Cookie Fail, Micro-Specific Reggae Preferences, and Oh Yeah, a Trip to Italy

Happy (early) Labor Day weekend, friends!

Can you believe the summer is waning so quickly?

Although I don't think I'm a particularly good cook, I do enjoy being in the kitchen, and I also go through phases where I really like reading about food. I generally prefer essays about food and biographies of chefs, but in recent years I've also found myself occasionally reading up on more technical writing about best practices for specific food techniques, particularly on the Serious Eats site. It was their post about crock pots vs. pressure cookers that finally convinced me to get over my fear of blowing up the house and figure out how to use the presure cooker that Brian's mom had sent us when we first moved in to our current apartment. (Well, tbh, I was also motivated by wanting to be able to make risotto faster and more efficiently.) And their batch of recipes for various flavored atoles is the reason that I currently have a huge package of masa sitting on the top shelf of our cupboard. So when I came across J. Kenji López-Alt's opus on chocolate chip cookies, I got super excited about nerding out on his scientific explanations and giving the recipe a try.

Dietarily, Brian went gluten-free long before it became such a controversial topic among food people, and we're both vegetarian and often default to vegan. We love Isa Chandra Moskowitz's vegan recipes and cookbooks, and we cook from them frequently. But I've been consistently underwhelmed by her baked goods. Her cookies always come out flat and thin for me, running together in the oven no matter how far apart I space them or how compactly I scoop the dough. I reasoned that she's probably just more of a chef than a baker, so when I want to make something sweet, these days I tend to use jae steele's Get It Ripe gluten-free/vegan dessert recipes instead. (OMG, I made her carob cardamom cake for Thanksgiving last year and it is sooo good.)

We're not super strict about dairy and eggs, though, so after I diligently read the instructions for "The Science of the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies," I was like, screw it, I'm pulling out the big guns, and I sent Brian off to Whole Foods to get a couple sticks of unsalted butter, a half dozen organic eggs, and a new package of Bob's Red Mill gluten-free all-purpose baking flour. With the goods on hand, I set about making the dough on a Saturday afternoon, knowing I'd have to chill it at least overnight before I'd be able to put the cookies in the oven. I delightedly browned then immediately chilled the butter, tossed the eggs and sugar in my food processor, and then whipped everything together with the flour once the butter had just barely resolidified. I put the dough in the fridge to set and smugly thought to myself, "take that, Isa Chandra's cookies; I've got science on my side for these babies." was deja vu all over again the next afternoon when it came time to rotate the cookie sheets halfway through the baking time. I shrieked with anguish when I opened the oven door and saw the ostensible Best Chocolate Chip Cookies spreading out, melding into each other, filling the sheet like a pancake. Completely disspirited, I let them cook the rest of the way, then chipped the weird lacy chunks off the sheet and into a Tupperware container. The chunks were delicious, to be sure--deep, rich, and buttery--just nothing resembling actual cookies.

Was it our oven? Our cookie sheets? Why did this keep happening to me? I turned to Google for insight.

Guys, duh. It's the gluten-free flour. That's literally what gluten is supposed to be there for--to keep everything stuck together, to give baked goods structure and density. jae steele's recipes have been written specifically to account for gluten-free flour, which is why they come out so well. Isa's, while completely vegan, call for regular all-purpose flour, not gluten-free. I naively thought I could just sub gluten-free flour in for any given recipe and consider the matter sorted. Not true! I know this now.

So, I'll be over here swallowing my pride, and spoonfuls of lacy cookie crumbles, until I'm ready to give the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies another try with honest-to-goodness real-deal gluten-inclusive flour.

Table of contents:

  1. What's new on the blog

  2. Trip photos

  3. Live music/recorded music

  4. "Wichita Lineman": The 2017 Covers Series

  5. You've got reiki!

What's new on the blog

This month on Queen of Peaches I'm telling a very long-winded story about how it took me sixteen years to get to eat a plate of spaghetti at the Vatican.

"The night before [my best friend's] bridal shower, I went with my maternal grandmother to some kind of spaghetti potluck fundraiser being held at a local church. I have no recollection what it was raising money for, or why my grandma had specifically invited me to go. Mostly I remember being in some typical but nondescript church hall or basement, the kind that I’d spent years of my life in, whether it was helping my dad load gear in and out of for wedding receptions, attending funeral luncheons, or performing Christmas carols with various school choirs. Sitting on a folding chair at a long table narrowly butted up against several other long tables packed with folding chairs, I shoved forkfuls of starchy spaghetti with tomato sauce into my mouth and stared down at the paper placemat that had an outline of the shape of Italy on it. And I thought to myself, 'yeah, Italy. Now that I’ve been to both France and England, that’s the place I’d like to go to next.'"

Click here to read the rest!

Trip photos

OK, so, this month's blog post is specifically about the part of this summer's big European trip that took us through Italy. But we spent time in London, Paris, and Lucerne too. (I'm sure I will write more about our experiences in all those places individually at some point in the future.) But anyway, if you don't have time to read the whole post right now and/or just want to get to the good stuff, click here to see all the photos!

(I promise it's more than just selfies!)

Live music/recorded music

Brian and I will be playing music THIS SATURDAY (September 2) at a Labor Day weekend backyard bash hosted by Angela McHaney Valavanis. Angela is the mastermind behind the Creative Coworking Space in Evanston, where we performed music for Gene Kannenberg Jr.'s "reading" of Qodèxx last month. (You can find out more in this interview about her and her amazing labor of love in rehabbing the historic Colvin House mansion in Edgewater.) We'll be playing a 45 minute set that begins at 9 pm, but it's an all-day affair. You can show up as early as 4 pm and stay as late as 11 pm. There will be a bar managed by Cary's Lounge, food catered by Yeero Revolution (set to be delivered at 5pm), and a handful of other bands playing live too. It all happens at 1823 Grant Street in Evanston. Do stop by if you're around this weekend!

And speaking of Qodèxx, don't forget that you can still stream and/or download our soundtrack on Bandcamp by clicking here. Copies of Qodèxx the graphic novella can be purchased online through Gene's Bigcartel shop. It's officially being taught at Central Michigan University this fall, so it's, like, y'know, educational and shit.

I often get flummoxed when I hear people talk about, say, redecorating their house, and they insist that, because the blue paint they picked for the walls dried exactly two shades darker than they were expecting, the whole job is now ruined. I'm always like, "wow, where does that level of specificity come from and why does it matter?" Until, of course, I remember that my own similarly microscopic gradations of taste manifest themselves musically rather than visually. Like, I love dance music...but only when it has enough bass. New Wave and Synth Britannia stuff? No thanks! Brian will often playfully test my taste-o-meter in this genre, pulling up early '80s English pop obscurities on YouTube until I realize what he's doing and will start shouting, "ugh, no! It's too bleepy bloopy!!" Similarly, I have very specific rules about the kind of reggae that I prefer to listen to--late-career Bob Marley is out (too preachy and weirdly stiff); early Bob Marley is awesome (Catch a Fire, yessss); but the totally demented King Tubby dub stuff is the very best of all ("Dr. Satan's Echo Chamber," anyone??).

I'm not sure what flavor of reggae I was expecting when I found a recording of Dennis Brown singing "Wichita Lineman," but I was pleasantly surprised to find how low-key and straight-ahead it is (at least until the solo; more on which momentarily).

Click here to listen to the song on YouTube.

Dennis Brown's name is likely best known to most of us hipsters of a certain age as the nominal subject of the Mountain Goats' "Song for Dennis Brown" from The Sunset Tree. But he's also a straight-up musical hero in Jamaica. No less than Bob Marley said that Brown was his favorite singer, and it's easy to hear why. His pipes are smoother than smooth, with a seemingly effortless panache. And if the dates I'm seeing online are accurate, he only would have been about 15 when he recorded this. (!!)

The tempo here is gloriously relaxed; if the song's narrator is still on the line, he may end up being here for quite some time to come, so what's the rush? The tempo, combined with the absurdly charismatic vocal, really pulls the song out of the realm of existential inquiry and reconfigures it as something more like a love song. Perhaps a love song to music itself? As the pop culture writer Matthew Perpetua once said about Huey Lewis, "If any other band in the world was playing this song it might make you cry, but Huey Lewis simply cannot sing without smiling. HE LOVES SINGING SO MUCH!!!!!" And it's pretty much the same thing here. The song itself can be such a heartbreaker, but there's nothing but joy in this particular vocal take.

And then there's the guitar solo in the middle, where I suddenly remembered, oh yeah, these reggae guys were making all these crazy, inventive sounds with the most basic studio set-ups. I asked Brian what kind of effects pedal they would have been using to get a sound like that, and his response was basically "I have no idea." Not because it's necessarily complicated--today it would be easy to use a wah-wah to get that effect and call it a day. But in the very early '70s, it would have been something unwieldy like an Echoplex, or some kind of panning effect in the mixing board itself. However it was generated, it's pure ear candy, something fun and slightly off-kilter for no other reason but sheer delight. Glorious stuff.

This newsletter is coming to you infused with reiki healing energy this month! Y'all, it's been a tough summer, a tough year, in so many ways. Sending you some reiki is just one small thing I can do to let you all know how much I appreciate you, how much I recognize your strength, and how much I wish greater ease and grace for us all. There's nothing you need to do to receive it except just be open to it and enjoy.

With so much love,