Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

While walking in a local Brooklyn park this weekend I came upon this tree which immediately reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite books:

"The one tree in Francie's yard was neither a pine nor a
hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated
from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green
umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed
fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up
lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out
of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts."

- Betty Smith

The Tree-of-Heaven, or Ailanthus Altissima, was used as an inspirational metaphor in the classic Betty Smith's 1943 novel "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." The Ailanthus' obvious persistence to survive and grow despite all odds was equal to the book's characters aspirations for a better life despite enduring hardships. It’s a coming of age story about Francie Nolan as her family struggles with poverty, alcoholism, and the realities of life in the tenements of Brooklyn, New York in the early part of the century.

While the tenacity of this tree is a noble metaphor for the book's protagonist, this tree in nature is an unwanted invasive species, as it is a prolific seed producer, grows rapidly, and can overrun native vegetation. Once established, it can quickly take over a site and form an impenetrable thicket as you can see in the photo above from the same park. Ailanthus trees also produce toxins that prevent the establishment of other plant species. Their root system is aggressive enough to cause damage to sewers and foundations

It grows stout and tall to about 100 feet with a "fern-like" compound leaf that may be 2 to 4 feet long, and now has wide distribution in the United States, occurring in forty-two states, from Maine to Florida and west to California.

I took this photo of the side of a building in Williamsburg neighborhood Brooklyn a few weeks ago. It shows two pervasive examples of urban blight...the Ailanthis tree growing literally out of cracks in the building foundation and the ubiquitous graffiti that seems to be the fate of many blank city walls. It seems that the tree that "grows in Brooklyn" is still growing strong, just as there are still children and adolescents who face the same harsh realities of life that Francie Nolan did. Perhaps that is why this book is such an enduring classic. No matter what generation you are from, or where you live, or what your socio-economic background is, growing up can be a struggle with many adversities to overcome. A reader can not help but identify with Francie as she escapes the confines of her life by reading her beloved library books, aspiring to become a writer herself one day.

Does the Ailanthus Altissima also grow where you live? Do you have a favorite book from your youth that you revisit time and time again? One where you've recognized characteristics of yourself, or a book that transported you to a favorite time or place?

I'd love to hear about in your comment....thanks!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

June Daring Bakers Challenge -- Bakewell Tart...er...Pudding

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie ofAmbrosia and Nectar.

They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England. Bakewell tarts…er…puddings combine a number of dessert elements but still let you show off your area’s seasonal fruits.
The tart or pudding (as it is called both in the UK) has a long interesting history -- according to Wikipedia, "The origins of the Bakewell Tart are not clear, however the generally accepted story is that it was first made by accident in 1820 when the landlady of the White Horse Inn, left instructions for her cook to make a jam tart. The cook, instead of stirring the eggs and almond paste mixture into the pastry, spread it on top of the jam. When cooked the jam rose through the paste. The result was successful enough for it to become a popular dish at the inn. The name is believed to have come from a customer who decided that the tart was "baked well" thus the inn called it their "Bakewell" tart."
Like many regional dishes there’s no “one way” to make a Bakewell Tart…er…Pudding, but most of today’s versions fall within one of two types. The first is the “pudding” where a layer of jam is covered by an almondy pastry cream and baked in puff pastry. The second is the “tart” where a rich shortcrust pastry holds jam and an almondy sponge cake-like filling.

The version we were dared to make was a combination of the two: a sweet almond-flavoured shortcrust pastry, frangipane and jam.

I made my Bakewell Tart with a homemade strawberry jam:

Ingredients for strawberry jam:

1 cup fresh strawberries hulled,sliced, and rinsed.
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon corn starch

Place strawberries in a medium saucepan and add sugar, stir well. Do not add any water. Heat to a medium simmer and mash down strawberries with a wooden spoon until they resemble thick puree. In a small bowl add 1 tsp water to the corn starch, mix well and them drizzle corn starch water into the strawberries. Simmer and stir strawberries until the juice thickens. Allow to cool. Store in refrigerator.

Ingedients for the Sweet Shortcrust Pastry:

Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Resting time: 30 minutes (minimum)
Equipment needed: bowls, box grater, cling film

225g (8oz) all purpose flour
30g (1oz) sugar
2.5ml (½ tsp) salt
110g (4oz) unsalted butter, cold (frozen is better)
2 (2) egg yolks
2.5ml (½ tsp) almond extract (optional)
15-30ml (1-2 Tbsp) cold water

Sift together flour, sugar and salt. Grate butter into the flour mixture, using the large hole-side of a box grater. Using your finger tips only, and working very quickly, rub the fat into the flour until the mixture resembles bread crumbs. Set aside.
Lightly beat the egg yolks with the almond extract (if using) and quickly mix into the flour mixture. Keep mixing while dribbling in the water, only adding enough to form a cohesive and slightly sticky dough.

Form the dough into a disc, wrap in cling and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Place the chilled dough disc on a lightly floured surface. If it's overly cold, you will need to let it become acclimatised for about 15 minutes before you roll it out. Flour the rolling pin and roll the pastry to 5mm (1/4”) thickness, by rolling in one direction only (start from the center and roll away from you), and turning the disc a quarter turn after each roll. When the pastry is to the desired size and thickness, transfer it to the tart pan, press in and trim the excess dough. Patch any holes, fissures or tears with trimmed bits.

Chill in the freezer for 15 minutes

Ingredients for the Frangipane Topping:

Prep time: 10-15 minutes
Equipment needed: bowls, hand mixer, rubber spatula

125g (4.5oz) unsalted butter, softened
125g (4.5oz) icing sugar
3 (3) eggs
2.5ml (½ tsp) almond extract
125g (4.5oz) ground almonds
30g (1oz) all purpose flour

Cream butter and sugar together for about a minute or until the mixture is primrose in color and very fluffy. Scrape down the side of the bowl and add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. The batter may appear to curdle. After all three are in, pour in the almond extract and mix for about another 30 seconds and scrape down the sides again. With the beaters on, spoon in the ground nuts and the flour. Mix well. The mixture will be soft, keep its slightly curdled look (mostly from the almonds) and retain its pallid yellow color.

Assembling the tart:

Preheat oven to 200C/400F.

Remove shell from freezer, spread as even a layer as you can of jam onto the pastry base. Top with frangipane, spreading to cover the entire surface of the tart. Smooth the top and pop into the oven for 30 minutes.
Five minutes before the tart is done, the top will be poofy and brownish. Remove from oven and strew flaked almonds on top and return to the heat for the last five minutes of baking.

The finished tart will have a golden crust and the frangipane will be tanned, poofy and a bit spongy-looking. Remove from the oven and cool on the counter.

Serve warm, with crème fraîche, whipped cream or custard sauce if you wish.

When you slice into the tart, the almond paste will be firm, but slightly squidgy and the crust should be crisp but not tough.

Even though I cooked my tart for the allotted time the frangipane did not become spongy in the middle, but remained more like a pudding! So in a way my Bakewell Tart was a bit of both.
The next time I make this I will probably use small tart pans, as that should help the frangipane cook firmer, and I'd also use a little less strawberry jam in the filling
As my husband and I love the taste of almonds we found the Bakewell tart/pudding was absolutely delicious!

This challenge was a unique baking experience for me, as I never cooked by weighing ingredients before, and grating the cold butter into the flour mixture to make the tart crust was a new technique that I will use again. Thank you Jasmine and Annemarie! Your choice of a Bakewell Tart...er...Pudding was a success!

Please visit The Daring Kitchen website to learn more about the Daring Bakers and the Daring Cooks Challenges, and visit some of the other blogs on the blogroll that participated in the June Challenge to see their fabulous Bakewell Tarts/Puddings

There is also a recipe archive, FAQ's, a forum, cookbook reviews and lots more on The Daring Kitchen web site, and you can also register to join in on future challenges. Hope to see your creation next time!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Riis Park, Queens, New York

While my grandson was visiting us recently we went to Jacob Riss Park for his first view of the Atlantic Ocean.

Jacob Riis Park in the New York City borough of Queens, is part of the Jamaica Bay Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area, and managed by the National Park Service, and lies just west of Rockaway Beach. The day we visited it was overcast and cool, but I'll go back again on a sunny day and show you how pretty it is.

Besides the lifeguards on duty, we were practically the only people there. It was peaceful and also a great time to beach comb.

Opened in 1932, the park is named in honor of Jacob Riis, the famed New York City journalist and photographer who documented the plight of the poor and working class. Riis beach is also known as "The People's Beach" and is comprised of 14 bays, and during the warm days of summer, each bay has its own distinctive personality, which you can read about in this New York Times article.

I grew up in an area of Brooklyn that was just a bridge crossing away, and often spent summer days here, as it was very accessible by public bus.

Unfortunately, every summer there have been drownings in this area, and at other New York City beaches, caused by powerful rip currents that can occur offshore. Rip currents are the number-one concern for beach lifeguards: About 80 percent of all beach rescues are caused by them.

This lifeguard was bundled up because it was chilly, but she was very alertly watching the ocean.

We also experienced a little bit of a "Bay Watch" moment when these young lifeguards ran by.......

...... and at the beginning of each bay would stop and do push-ups as part of their ongoing training. New York City lifeguards must pass a very vigorous training program which includes:

40 hours of training.
A CPR course.
Swimming tests and a written test.
They must be able to swim 440 yards in 7 minutes and 40 seconds to qualify for a pool assignment, or 6 minutes and 40 seconds to qualify for a beach assignment. Beach lifeguards must also complete a 300-yard ocean swim.

Riis Park is home to many shorebirds, including the American Oyster Catcher seen above.

We enjoyed watching this bird from afar as it diligently used its long beak to search the shoreline for food.

Success! She hurriedly carried her catch over the sands to her protected nesting area to feed her young.
There have been sightings of the endangered Piping Plovers, Sanderlings and Sandpipers, among other birds at Riis Park.

Near Riis Park is The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is one of the largest bird sanctuaries in the northeastern United States --over 9,000 acres. Jamaica Bay is the best place in New York City to observe seasonal migration of birds. The bay's islands and ponds are a key layover spot for birds along the Atlantic Flyway. During the spring and late summer, it's possible to see hundreds of different birds. More than 330 bird species that have been sighted at the refuge over the last 25 years; that is nearly half the species in the Northeast!

The sound of the ocean and the gentle breezes made our little guy very sleepy and he napped in my arms.

What more could I ask for? It was a perfect day at the beach!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Yankee Stadium - Inaugural Season- Subway Series

Reposting about the new Yankee Stadium after doing some editing, as my first post about it was too long and all the photos would not load properly. Thanks for coming back for a second view!

My family and I were lucky to be able to attend two games of the Mets/Yankees baseball "subway series" at the brand new Yankee Stadium a couple of weekends ago!

Yankee Stadium is located in the The Bronx, a borough of New York City. It serves as the home ballpark for the New York Yankees, replacing the previous Yankee Stadium, which was built in 1923. Much of the stadium incorporates design elements from the previous Yankee Stadium, paying homage to the Yankees' history, but there were plenty of new modern amenities to see.

It was a little sad to see the 86 year old original Yankee Stadium -- "House That Ruth Built" -- being dismantled across the street from the new stadium. I blogged about the final season in this stadium last summer.

A Hard Rock Cafe is located within the new ballpark, but it is open to anyone at the 161 St. and River Ave. entrance year round. Be prepared for a long wait, however, if you decide to eat there on a game day. They do not take reservations and we were told there was an hour and a half wait for a table. After two hours we were still waiting, and it seems that "VIPS" are allowed to skip ahead in the waiting list. We were not very happy about that and left without eating there.

One thing that did make me laugh about the Hard Rock Cafe experience, however, was that the line to the men's room was very, very long and meanwhile the women's room had no line at all! How often do you see that? (I know the photo is blurry but I did that on purpose as I did not ask the men on line permission to take their photo)

There is also a steakhouse called NYY Steak which is located beyond right field, a membership Mohegan Sun sports bar located above monument field in center field, and a premium seating Jim Beam Club .

There are also 25 fixed concessions stands, along with 112 movable ones on the various levels of the stadium.

Between the exterior perimeter wall and interior of the stadium is the "Great Hall," which is a large concourse that runs between Gates 4 and 6. With seven-story ceilings, the Great Hall features more than 1,000,000 square feet of retail space and is lined with 20 banners of past and present Yankees superstars.

The Yankees Museum, located on the lower level at Gate 6, displays a wide range of Yankees' memorabilia. Unfortunately we didn't have time to visit the museum this weekend but the next time I'll try to leave extra time to go in and I will will blog about it then.
It is always a thrill to see a baseball field for the first time, every season, and even more so now as Yankee Stadium was a new $1.5 billion dollar construction. A nice retrospective about all the new features and amenities to be found in the stadium can be found in this New York Daily News special feature.

You can also watch a video about the new stadium on The Daily News website

The seating capacity is 52, 325 -- a little more than 4,000 less than the old stadium. The seats are larger, many are padded, and there is more leg room. There are more restrooms and concession stands. There are also more private luxury boxes. What has remained the same is the field dimensions with right being 314 feet, center 408 feet and left field 318 feet.

The stands were full for the games we attended as the competition between the New York teams of the National League Mets and the American League Yankees is fierce.

The center field scoreboard, which measures 59 x 101 feet is the third largest high definition scoreboard in the world.

We were excited to see "Freddy Sez" in the stands near us. Freddie is an 84 year old fan and mascot of the Yankees, who attends almost every game, and roots them on by roaming the stands and having fans in the stadium hit his "lucky frying pan" with a "lucky spoon," which he says "Brings 'em luck."! It's a thrill to be able to do this if you are a Yankee fan!

The first game we attended was on June 12, 2009, and it was a beautiful Friday evening instead of the usual rainy spring days we have been having in New York this year.

Pitcher Joba Chamberlian started the game.

A view of Monument Park, which features the Yankees' retired numbers, as well as monuments and plaques dedicated to distinguished Yankees, is located beyond the center field fences at the new stadium.

A view of the visiting team, the NY Mets' dugout.

Night is descending on the stadium.

A view of the Yankees' dugout.

A close up of Yankee batter, Derek Jeter.

Jeter hits a home run! The Yankees hit a total of five home runs this game and the lead went back and forth during this very exciting game.

When the field crew comes out to smooth the infield in between the fifth inning, it stops to dance along to the song "YMCA." It's become a tradition, and continues on in the new stadium.

As the famous Yankee, Yogi Berra, once said: "Everyone wants to get into the act"!

A view of the Yankee bullpen, and part of the outfield bleacher seats. Relief pitcher Mariano Rivera is warming up.

When Riviera comes into the game the stadium PA system always plays the Metallica song "Enter Sandman," and the crowd goes wild! This fan was captured on the big screen playing air guitar and dancing along.

David Wright had put the Mets ahead 8-7 with an eighth-inning double off Mariano Rivera, and the Met's pitcher Francisco Rodriguez appeared to escape a ninth-inning jam on a two man out, two men on base, pop up hit by Alex Rodriguez ........

....but the second baseman for the Mets, Luis Castillo, dropped A-Rod's two-out pop up as Derek Jeter scored from second and Mark Teixeira scored from first, giving the Yankees a wild 9-8 victory over the Mets!

The Yankees ran onto the field to celebrate!

As the crowd leaves the stadium there is a tradition to sing along with the Frank Sinatra song "New York New York" that is playing over the PA system -- it always feels good to sing that song after such an exciting win!

The next game we attended was a rainy Saturday afternoon game on June 13,2009 (click the link to read the play by play)

We had bleacher seats this time --they turned out to be rather expensive seats as we had to pre-order them from "Stub Hub" as this game was a sell out.

> The game started on time, and continued for the whole 9 innings, even though there were rain showers during most of the game.

The view from the bleachers is pretty good and the fans really cheer vigorously in that section.

This wall behind the bleacher seats shows the years of the 26 World Series games the NY Yankees have won!

The Mets beat the Yankees 6-2 Saturday, so the cheers from the bleachers on that day were mainly coming from visiting Met fans, and my daughter was among them!

Our little grandson was happy, regardless of the game's outcome, as this was his very first Yankee game!

In the stadium lobby there was a display of Yankee memorabilia from the old stadium for sale.

It's possible to purchase seats from the old stadium also.

A subway tressle ouside the stadium. It was an exciting subway series, especially for the Yankees who won two out of the three games played!

Now for my give away of this Brooklyn Renegade Craft Fair tote bag!

I went to the Random.org. and put in the total number of comments I received on that post after writing it, and it chose the # 15. The 15th commentator was Lisa of Lisa's Retro Style blog!

Congratulations Lisa! Please e-mail your address and I will send the bag out as soon as possible. I'm also going to include a few Italian sepecialty treats that I bought here in it!

Thank you everyone who commented. I hope to do another give away soon!