Monday, December 1, 2008

Gratitude, in Motion and in Stillness

As far as I know, there is no Gypsy blood running through these veins of mine. I’m quite certain, though, that there’s an ounce or two of Gypsy spirit in these bones. How else can I explain the sudden case of wanderlust that gripped me the day before Thanksgiving? All I could think about was leaving town: hop on a plane, go somewhere else. I didn’t even have a particular destination in mind. I just wanted to leave. I wanted an excuse not to work for four days, an excuse to loaf around and be lazy with no responsibilities weighing me down.

But alas, a vacation wasn’t in the cards. I do have a vacation planned for later this month—three weeks from today, in fact, woo!—but until then, I remain planted firmly in Evanston. It’s not like me to feel so twitchy about things. I’m a homebody in the best sense of the word, so I was puzzled by these Gypsy urges, this lack of grace on the eve of Thanksgiving. I walked around all day feeling resentful about my job and all the anxiety I’m feeling these days about the future and the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing after I graduate. I’m sure I’ll find something, but for the first time in my life, I have no plan. It’s really scary, and yet, at the same time, my advisor and I are driving each other nuts, so part of me cannot WAIT to graduate and hit the road. Too bad I don’t know which road that is.

It is very odd to feel unhappy about my work when this year alone has been my most tangibly successful. My paper was finally accepted and published (woo again!), and my grant application was funded, so now I’m even paying my own salary, which makes my head spin when I think about it. After a long chat, my advisor agreed to let me supervise an undergraduate who will work with me on some of my research projects, which is an amazing teaching opportunity for me. I’m very excited about all this, but I’m still prone to whining and pouting about what I don’t have: a plane ticket out of town, my PhD, a boyfriend to cook me dinner on my birthday. I should be grateful for what I do have: a lovely town, a paid position in grad school, a boyfriend who loves me even when we’re almost a thousand miles apart.

Gratitude doesn’t pay attention to “shoulds,” and I don’t like trying to force myself to feel differently than I do. Instead, when grumpiness strikes, I indulge in a little bit of therapy. The only question is this: kitchen or pavement? I reach for either a knife or my running sneakers, and I get moving to work out those grumpy kinks.

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I found myself bounding over sidewalk, feeling a tiny bit of joy at the feel of cool air on my face and pavement under my feet. It was dark out already; the sun had set before 5 that evening. But I didn’t mind the darkness; the sky was like inky black velvet, blotting out my worries. I ran easily that night, almost effortlessly. The motion was rhythmic, steady and sure, and its sweetness tugged at my soul, making a little more room for thankfulness.

The next morning, I woke up feeling snug and happy in my warm bed. On the very top of my pile of blankets lay one that mirrors the sky itself. On one side, it is a velvety navy blue, dark as the predawn horizon; on the other, a daytime sky blue, a blue that matched the morning sky winking at me through the shades.

I shuffled out to the kitchen to make breakfast. I don’t understand people who don’t eat breakfast. I don’t even understand people who can wait to eat breakfast. As soon as I’m conscious, my belly starts whimpering and pointing toward the kitchen, so I waste no time between waking up and eating. Inside the refrigerator, two pieces of ciabatta bread were soaking in a vanilla-scented bath of egg and milk. That very lucky bread would have the honor of becoming my favorite French toast, and today, because of Thanksgiving and pumpkins and the harvest season, it would be topped with a warm sticky coat of fresh pumpkin and maple syrup. I can hardly think of a better reason to wake up.

I melted some Better in a pan over medium-low heat. Into the pan went the custard-soaked bread. Then I stood still. The secret to this French toast is a long, slow cook—3 or 4 minutes per side, in my kitchen—and I think it’s best to leave things alone during the cooking. For a few moments, I savored the silence, feeling at last the sort of contentment that I lacked the day before. An entire day to give thanks stretched before me, a day to take a long walk, wear my new birthday sweater, bake granola for Daphna and Ian, and breathe full, deep, cinnamon-scented breaths. A day for celebration, peace of mind, simple pleasures.

My kitchen timer beeped, indicating it was time to flip the bread. I slipped my flipper underneath and, with a quick turn of the wrist, revealed the crisp, caramelly brown surface, one that just begged for a maple-syrup jacket to keep it warm. While the second side cooked, I put the finishing touches on breakfast. Alongside my marvelous French toast I planned to eat some savory baked eggs (recipe coming soon!) and a mug of green tea. Sweet, salty, savory, bitter—except for acid, all the tastes found their way onto my intrepid palate. I chewed and swallowed slowly, every bite a delicious one, and wondered why all mornings couldn’t be this nice. With a full belly and a light heart, I pushed my chair back from the table, stood up, and began the task of putting my kitchen back in order, just as I’ve done a thousand times before in this little apartment of mine. At least for the day, my Gypsy wanderlust was no longer tugging at my heart, and for that I was grateful.

Rose-Anne’s Favorite French Toast with a Pumpkin-Maple Syrup Topping
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home and Nicole’s fabulous pumpkin pancake recipe
Serves 1 (easily multiplied to serve more)

Oh, my, are there even words to describe how good this French toast is? I don’t know, but I’m going to try. This dish is marvelously flavorful and utterly simple to make. The outside of the toast is chewy-crispy and, when combined with the pumpkin-maple syrup topping, has notes of caramel(!). Inside, there’s a pillow of bread, tender-chewy and meltingly soft, almost creamy. Every bite is warm with vanilla custard and a little spicy with cinnamon.

The key to making this French toast is time. Give the bread plenty of time to soak; I like to let it soak overnight, but I think a good 15-20 minutes of soaking the day you make it is fine, too. When it’s time to fry the soaked bread, give it plenty of time, about 6-8 minutes for two slices. If you want to make more than one serving, you can keep the cooked slices warm by placing them on a cookies sheet in an oven on the warm setting.

For the French toast:
2 slices of ciabatta or other good plain bread, sliced 1 inch thick
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk (I use my standard 1% milk)
1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
A few shakes of ground cinnamon (or, if that’s not precise enough for you, 1/8 tsp.)
2 tsp. Better or 1 tsp. each butter and canola oil

For the Pumpkin-Maple Syrup topping:
1/4 cup fresh pumpkin (I recommend fresh here, but use canned pumpkin if you don’t have fresh pumpkin)
2 tbsp. real maple syrup (the darker, the better!)

1) Place the bread in a shallow dish, one with a lid if you plan to soak the bread overnight.
2) In a small bowl or a 2-cup measuring cup, beat together the egg, milk, and vanilla. Stir in the cinnamon. Pour the whole thing over the bread slices.
3) Allow the bread to soak for 5 minutes or so and then flip it over to let the other side soak. Give the bread at least 15 minutes to soak, flipping it over occasionally. If you want to soak it overnight, after you’ve flipped it once, put the lid on the bread dish and pop it in the fridge until morning. It’s okay if the bread doesn’t absorb all the liquid—absorption will vary with different types of bread and the dryness of the bread.
4) Once the bread has had a nice long soak, melt the Better or butter+oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Place the bread in the skillet and let it cook for 3-4 minutes per side, flipping it when the first side is done.
5) While the French toast is cooking, get the topping ready. In a small saucepan, heat the pumpkin and maple syrup together over low heat, stirring to combine.
6) Once both sides of the French toast are crispy and brown, and the topping is hot, transfer the French toast to a plate, spoon the topping over the toast, and sit yourself down right away to eat. You’ll need a knife and fork for this one—it’s got a lot of chew!


ttfn300 said...

my my, i love the way you describe things :) note to self: take more time to enjoy what you create!

congrats on getting your own funding! that is fabulous, especially with the current state of science funding. the road to a ph.d. is long and hard, but such great success you have had so far--it only bodes well for the rest of your career! whatever that may be :) i don't know if the road i'm on is the be-all-end-all, but it's my current state so heads buckled down and see where it goes...

Rosiecat said...

ttfn, you always leave me the sweetest comments! You're too kind.

I don't know about your lab life, but too often I feel harried and stressed about getting everything done. I think that's why I like to think of cooking as a process that I enjoy, rather than just feeling impatient about waiting to eat!

Yes, having funding is awesome! I worked my tail off to get it, but it feels great now. It's only for one year, and after that, hopefully I'll be writing my thesis and tying up any loose ends in the lab. After that...? Postdoc? Teaching science? Editing? Writing cookbooks? That last one is my favorite option! ;-)

I love that we're both scientists AND food bloggers! It's very cool.