by Jamie Schler
STARTING OVER – Step 1
Like the beat beat beat of the tom-tom
When the jungle shadows fall
Like the tick tick tock of the stately clock
As it stands against the wall
Like the drip drip drip of the raindrops
When the summer shower is through
So a voice within me keeps repeating you, you, you
Only you beneath the moon or under the sun
Whether near to me, or far
Its no matter darling where you are
I think of you
“Life is an adventure,” she said, no trace of cliché on her lips. He scooted down a little lower, snuggling deeper into his corner of the sofa. His eyes searched out her own, slightly pleading, slightly mocking, filled with the desire to believe her once again. She had just returned from Germany and stepped off of the airplane into a new life, one of risk and a daring adventure, one of complete togetherness. They were tossing caution to the wind in their great desire to grab at happiness and contentment, something so rare these days. And from here on out they would be together each and every day, all day and into the night.
“Was it the right thing to do?” he ponders aloud as he thinks back to that fateful decision to leave it all, to head back to that small, square space marked Go! and begin all over again. Drunk and giddy on self-confidence and impatience, they signed their security away with a flourish of the pen and one sharp nod of the chin. “Life is for living,” they exclaimed loudly for anyone to hear, and they actually quite believed it themselves. Sons grown up (though still lining up eagerly with outstretched hands and upturned palms), they had no one to please but themselves no matter how responsibility tugged at their conscience. Too much had happened in these last few years: a long and bumpy ride surrounded by tragedy and loss, adolescent foibles and troubles, doubts and woes. Sitting down night after night, taking those long, thoughtful, conversation-filled walks out in the quiet of the vineyards on weekends, they discussed it until they were blue in the face. They turned the question inside out and upside down, pulling it apart and analyzing it bit by bit until, exhausted, they knew that the time had come to make up their minds. Sometimes one must just take that first crucial step towards that elusive notion of happiness at the peril of losing one’s footing, tripping and falling flat on one’s nose. But even then, isn’t it just possible, as Fred Astaire once crooned, to “pick yourself up, brush yourself off and start all over again?”
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up, dust myself off,
Start all over again.
Don’t lose your confidence if you slip.
Be grateful for a pleasant trip,
And pick yourself up; dust yourself off;
Start all over again.
Oh, they had done this before. It started with an itch, deep and dark, lying somewhere below the skin, nestled inside the brain between parental responsibility, conforming to society’s expectations and childhood fairytales, jostling the others for a bit of elbow room. Growing like a wildflower (or maybe like weeds), it eventually pushed its way to the surface and, listening to the tiny, quiet voice, they packed their suitcases, filled about a thousand cartons, left jobs, school and familiar surroundings and headed west to a bright, new future. But somehow or other nasty things like educating their sons, paying rent and taxes and putting food on the table got in the way and they found themselves, once again, back at the same place: discontentment, lassitude and that old, familiar craving for adventure. They patiently waited the years that it took for their babies to grow into men and leave the nest before taking any rash or utterly selfish decisions. But they knew that they could wait no longer and that it was finally time for the two of them (along with their trusty black & white sidekick trotting along at their heels) to gather what was most important around them, reevaluate the situation and start over. Great list makers, they began enumerating all the whats, wheres and hows even before the day he drank a toast to his colleagues, packed up his desk in an old cardboard box, waved adieu and headed back home. Suits and ties cleaned, ironed and hung side by side in the closet, he slipped into the old, familiar jeans, a comfortable sweater and ratty, tatty sneakers and sat down beside her, hand in hand, to decide what to do and where to go next.
A Sabbatical Year, they call it, a time to gather their forces and gather their senses, and work out a strategy, a plan of attack. World map, slightly worn and frayed around the edges, the folds cracked with time, is tacked haphazardly to the wall of the livingroom inviting consideration each time they enter or leave. Sometimes they stand side-by-side, fists propped on hips or the thoughtful, silent, slow stroking of beard or chin, and contemplate the possibilities. They play “what if?” and “what about here?” as one or the other stabs at this country or that island lost in the center of some wide blue expanse of ocean. Hot and tropical, cold and wintry; serene and tame or wild and untamed? City? Countryside? Surrounded by people or “retiré du monde”? The possibilities, they find, are endless and that much more difficult to narrow down. Upon what should they base the decision? Language? Work? Family and friends? Familiarity? Or culture and cuisine?
Like a favorite record long in storage and forgotten in some dusty repository, slipped out of its worn jacket and placed carefully on the turntable, she once again savors the old, forgotten melody of being with him night and day. Projects flit through their brains and pepper their conversations as they snuggle up on the sofa in front of a good movie or a rugby match; as they stroll through town or tromp through forest and vineyard; as they stand side by side in the kitchen, slicing, chopping, stirring, kneading and eating; as they pop open another bottle of wine and click glasses in a toast to themselves and their new life. They have absolutely no problem spending every waking moment together and actually enjoy each other’s company, preferring it beyond all else. Joyous, quirky, laughter-filled and thoughtful, surrounded by their books, a comfortable bed and a warm kitchen, their days and nights are woven together with love and romance, shared ideals and the same passion to learn, travel and discover. This, then, is the secret, the news not yet revealed, the adventure that they have decided to embark upon, starting now. They are indeed we.
And what shall we do? And where shall we do it? Maybe we could hop aboard the Darjeeling Express and eat curries and Tandoori across India and learn how to bake naan the traditional way. Or maybe buy a bed & breakfast in New England, eat lobster and steamed clams dredged in hot, golden, melted butter and bake loaves of bread studded with local cranberries and drizzled with maple syrup. We could move to Lille, the crossroads of Europe; lunch in Belgium on moules frîtes then hop over to London for a spot of tea, finishing the evening in Paris for a romantic dinner for two. We could rent a camping car and travel end to end across the United States, take in the stunning beauty of the Adirondacks, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, eat hot dogs on Coney Island, barbecue in Saint Louis, chili in Texas and Dungeness Crabs while staring out at the Pacific Ocean. Maybe we’ll head south to Italy where we can crawl from archeological dig to archeological dig, dining on Pasta Puttanesca, Pizza Bianca, Ossobuco and the best gelato in the world. Maybe we’ll weather the freezing cold of northern winters and keep warm with a plate of Canadian poutine, Swedish Gravlax or Våfflor, Norwegian Kjøttkaker. Or kick back in a more tropical clime and dine on coconuts, pineapples and steamed shrimp with our fingers, barefoot, toes wiggling in the hot sand? Do we follow our stomachs around the world or do we follow a more “adult” route into the future? Or can we combine the two and create our own heaven?
The world is our oyster, or so goes the old well-worn saying. And who am I to question the wisdom of some old soul who first uttered these words, especially if the oyster is nutty and bright like a brisk ocean breeze and drizzled with just a splash of fresh lemon, served with freshly baked brown bread sliced ever so thinly and slathered with a smear of creamy, salty butter and swallowed down with a glass of chilled, fruity, crisp local Muscadet? Life is indeed an adventure, and why sit still and simply pine for what we have never done, never seen, never had? Will we ever truly find fulfillment in this mad, mad, crazy world? Will we be able to dine on oysters and Champagne and chocolate cake or will it all simply turn to ashes in our greedy mouths? Will we find sustenance for both body and soul or continue to wander aimlessly, hand in hand, grasping at the shadow of dreams, stumbling upon disillusion and disappointment? For now, we are driven by high hopes and great expectations and living each day, happily, as it comes.
Dinners, lunches and desserts have become simple, casual affairs in our new, pared down life. We wander over to the market and select the freshest, most seasonal and local of products and carry them home as prizes. Meals are improvised with what we pull out of our basket or what is left in the fridge or found in the pantry. We eat on a whim when hungry and we prepare just what we are in the mood for. A huge batch of bread dough has me playing around with ideas and letting the summer weather have its way with juicy, ripe, fruity tomatoes, the bite of deep green arugula and the tang of crumbly feta, cool, sharp and crisp. Deep red, sweet strawberries, the best of the local farms, are bursting from the stands lining the marketplace and how can I say no? Savory pizza, sweet pizza, tiny focaccia and we are happy.
This post, although started several days ago with the purpose of answering questions, clearing up just one mystery and informing my friends and readers of this new step in our lives, has ended with a challenge by a group of our wonderful Plate to Page participants (in an amazing attempt to keep the energy and dynamics of the workshop going): Plate to Page, Mona, Simone, Ilva and Jenn, our own Cold Coffee Twitter Club, have each decided to write a blog post on “would you let your waistline determine where you live?” and this timely theme is exactly what JP and I are considering…
My lovely, wonderful, talented friend Simone has urged us all to participate in Ilva which, after being in hibernation for a long 8 months is now being kickstarted — once again — by herself and partners Paper Chef and Mike. We are asked to create a dish out of four selected ingredients and this month Bread, Berries, Chocolate and Lime were drawn out of the hat. As I was in a pizza/focaccia mood, I made sweet Pizza Focaccia topped with fresh strawberries marinated in a splash of lime juice, a sprinkling of sugar and lime zest and gooey dark chocolate ganache.
SWEET FOCACCIA WITH STRAWBERRIES & CHOCOLATE GANACHE DRIZZLE
This cool, scrumptious, casual dessert can be made even more decadent by adding a scoop or two of ice cream or a freshly whipped Chantilly cream.
For the Olive Oil Bread Dough:
About 2 Tbs/.06 oz (18 g) traditional dry yeast
3 Tbs granulated brown or white sugar
4 ½ tsp table salt
2.2 pounds (1 kg) flour
1 ¼ cups (300 ml) x 2 tepid water (warm to body temperature), more as needed
4 Tbs olive oil + for brushing pizzas
2 Tbs granulated sugar for dusting each sweet pizza
Place the 3 tablespoons granulated brown or white sugar with the dry yeast in a small bowl. Add 1 ¼ cups (300 ml) warm water (place the back or your hand/wrist under running water and when you don’t feel either hot or cold on your skin it will be about body temperature and the right temperature for yeast), gently swirl the bowl to just blend and allow the yeast to activate 20 to 30 minutes or until it has become a thick layer of white foam on top of the liquid.
Prepare a clean, large baking tray with a lip all around the edges or a very large clean mixing bowl and add a 1 – 2 tablespoons olive oil in the center of the tray or bowl and set aside.
Place the flour in a very large mixing bowl and stir in the salt. Once the yeast has been proofed, make a well in the center of the flour, add the yeast/sugar and the liquid (scraping out any unblended yeast or sugar into the well as well), add the 4 tablespoons olive oil and about half of the second 1 ¼ cups (300 ml) warm water.
Using a wooden spoon, stir the liquid into the dry ingredients, blending until all the dry ingredients are moistened, adding the rest of the warm water as you mix as well as up to an extra ¼ to ½ cup warm water as needed. Continue to stir until it starts to form a ragged dough. If in doubt, add more water as it is easier to start the kneading process with a dough that is too wet than one that is too dry. Scrape out onto a floured work surface.
Knead the dough for 6 to 8 minutes, adding flour to the work surface and dusting the dough as needed (if it is too wet and sticky), until the dough is silky smooth and elastic. Place on the baking tray or bowl, roll to evenly coat in the olive oil then cover the entire baking tray or bowl with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to sit at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours until well risen and puffy, doubled in size or more.
For each individual sweet pizza you will need a tennis ball size of dough.
Prepare the strawberries by hulling and slicing or cutting into halves or quarters. Sprinkle with sugar, add a squeeze of lime juice and grate over some of the lime zest, toss and allow to macerate while the pizzas are baking.
Make the Chocolate Ganache:
Chop 3.5 oz (100 g) dark chocolate (I use Lindt 70% dark or one of the flavored chocolates) and place in a heatproof bowl.
Gently heat ½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream over medium-low heat until it just comes to the boil (it will begin to steam and you will see tiny bubbles around the edges).
Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture becomes silky and smooth. Allow to cool until thicker but still drizzling consistency.
Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). Line a baking tray or pizza pan with parchment paper.
Cut off a tennis ball-sized piece of dough and gently roll into a ball. Place on a floured work surface and roll it our, flouring the surface of the dough and the table as needed, to the size of a dinner plate or slightly smaller. Place the disc of dough on the prepared baking tray. Brush lightly all over the surface with olive oil then sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake for 10 or 15 minutes or until golden.
Or if you prefer a base that is chewier, piadina style, simply cook the disc of dough in a very lightly greased (olive oil) non-stick pan on the stove over a medium-high heat on both sides until cooked and golden.
Remove from the oven or skillet to a plate, pile with hulled, sliced strawberries and drizzle with as much chocolate ganache as you please. Sprinkle with colored sugar crystals or powdered sugar if you like. You can also serve this with a scoop or two of ice cream or topped with freshly whipped cream.