Note: In order to combine two of the author’s blogs, this post has been relocated from another site. For those of you who have already viewed this post, my apologies for the repetition, and thank you for your patience. Original post date: January 16, 2015.

Most of my friends and acquaintances know that I ran away with an Italian circus in my twenties, and some know that I have been writing stories about those years for some time. A few know that my memoir, Love in the Elephant Tent, will be published in May of this year. But not many know quite what has gone into that process.

 I began to compile stories from my under-the-big-top adventures in 1994, a few years after I returned to the US from Italy. It was slow going. I mean slow. Perhaps that’s to be expected when you run off with the Grateful Dead and then a circus in lieu of college. By the time I helped form a local writers critique group in 1998, I had but a handful of chapters completed, none of which would make it into the final book. Over the next five years, I worked my way through the remaining story — laughter and tears, joy and frustration, and an incredibly patient writers group were regular and indispensable companions. By late 2003, I held a completed first draft in my hands — all 135,000 words of it. Another 5 years would pass as I hacked away at revisions and shepherded some 40,000 words, hundreds of hours of work, into the recycling bin.

In 2009, it was time to find an agent, and I did. Then it time was to find a publisher. And that came too, but that’s another story, another post. For now I’ll just say that it took another 6 years. In spring of 2014, I had a contract and a publishing date set for May, 2015.

A publishing date. A specific point in time when others — anyone — could peer into my heart simply by opening a book. Oh dear.

The reality of sending such personal stories of a crazy and tumultuous period of my life out into the world makes me catch my breath — especially after hanging onto them for 20-plus years. But I do have to let go, see if this book will find its way into readers’ hands and hearts and bookshelves. So many concerns: Will anyone connect with my story? See themselves and their experiences in my own? Did I represent my feelings accurately? Treat others fairly? Spell foreign words correctly? And what about those damn commas?

Oh dear.

I received my Advance Reading Copy in late December. I pored over it and adorned it with so many sticky notes that it looked like a 1920s flapper dress. And then I went back and pondered my notes, one by one. Fixing and unfixing passages. Moving commas. Correcting those foreign words. Checking accents, dates, and weights. And then I unstuck those sticky notes, piled them up in a corner of my desk. They reminded me of confetti.

Sticky Note Confetti, Love in the Elephant Tent

And it is time to celebrate. The book may not be perfect, but that’s okay. I’m not perfect either, but I seem to be making my way through this world nonetheless. Not everybody “gets” me, so I won’t expect everyone to “get” my book. But some will, and I will be thankful for that.

It’s time for me to let go. Fare thee well, my friend.

It really did sound like a good idea. Peaches, mascarpone, zabaglione, caramels, tawny port, savoiardi … what could go wrong? A lot, apparently.

Peach Tiramisu

Peaches and Whiskers Blake Tawny Port

First lesson: do not freeze mascarpone cheese. If you find good, imported Italian mascarpone on sale for 75% off because it expires in a week, DO NOT fill half of your freezer with little blue and white tubs to use at a later date. DO buy all you can use in that week, however. Make a tiramisu a day. Make mascarpone/gorgonzola/walnut loaf and spread it on crusty bread for lunch. Hell, put it on your eggs in the morning if you have to, just use it all up before it expires. If you don’t, you’ll spend more time trying to save it when you defrost it than than a fresh tub of imported cheese is worth.

Second lesson: I’m guessing that Italians don’t make peach and caramel tiramisu for a reason. If they’re going to spend all that time making dessert, they’re going to make something edible, such as the real thing. Someone has surely come up with some good variables out there – which is what I was trying to do yesterday – my experiment just didn’t turn out that way.

I started out defrosting peaches I’d plucked last year from a nearby peach farm. Whenever I defrost a quart of sliced peaches, I’m always left with a good 1 to 1.5 cup of peachey liquid. For pies and sauces, I’ll use this “juice” instead of any water the recipe calls for. (Kitchen Tip: If it’s not needed for the recipe at hand, I’ll freeze it in an ice cube tray, perhaps plop a frozen blueberry or two into each cube, and save it for some yummy summery drink, or, preferably, to keep sparkling white wine cool on a too-hot day.) For my peach tiramisu experiment, I used a cup of the peach juice instead of coffee, melted a handful of caramels in it to add flavor and thicken it up a bit, and topped it off with 1/4 cup of Australian tawny port (in place of  the amaretto I use in true tiramisu – though the amaretto would have worked nicely with the peaches too). The concoction tasted good enough to drink — so far so good, I thought, as I poured it over the savoiardi cookies (aka Ladyfingers) — I mean, doesn’t it look like it should have worked?

Peach Tiramisu

Savoirdi (Ladyfinger) Cookies

Peach Tiramisu

Caramels in Peach Juice

Peach Tiramisu

So far so good with the caramel, peach, and port infused savoiardi, right?

Even the zabaglione egg cream thickened up to perfection:

Peach Tiramisu

And that’s where I ran into trouble. You see, frozen mascarpone turns grainy due to its high fat content, and defrosting doesn’t undo the damage. A sample tasted like sweetened sawdust. Once on my tongue, the little globules of hardened cream melted, but I didn’t think cautioning my Mother’s Day guests to retain each bite of dessert in their mouth while the custard turned creamy would work out so well, so I tried to “fix” the mascarpone. First, I beat it with the Kitchen Aid’s beater paddle. Nope. Then the whisk. Still grainy. Tried my hand-held beating wand and found myself teetering in three-strikes-you’re-out territory. Then I laid my eyes on my Vitamix. A-HA! If this beauty could pulverize kale and chard and dandelion greens into velvety green liquid for my breakfast each day, surely it could silken up a tub of grainy mascarpone, couldn’t it?

Apparently not. It tried, though, I’ll certainly give the Vitamix that, and it made sure the entire household knew how hard it was trying by the godawful noise it created while doing it. As I continued shoving the cheese into the blades with the Vitamix-provided tamper, the blender’s valiant effort paid off in still-grainy but potentially edible mascarpone.

Between the beating and the whisking and the Vitamixing, I lost, oh, about an hour trying to save the cheese – a good part of that trying to dislodge it from the blender’s blades. I finally combined the mascarpone with the zabaglione, egg whites and vanilla, spread it on top of my savoiardi cookies, and placed it in the refrigerator to set overnight. Meanwhile, the peach sauce (peaches, peach juice, sugar and corn starch) had cooked to perfection on the stove top.

So last night, after a feast of gourmet pizza (Mom’s request) and spinach salad, I brought out the dessert, placing a nice-sized square in each bowl and topping it with warm peach sauce. The peach sauce was truly fantastic, but the custard was still grainy, and the cookies had disintegrated to mush. One guest outright refused even a taste. Okay… he doesn’t eat dessert often, I can count him out. Another guest didn’t want more than a couple of bites – and he loves his desserts. Four of us ate full servings, but only one said she’d eat it again. (Thanks Mom – always a trooper!)

Maybe we were simply too full. Or maybe the dessert really did turn out that badly. Whichever the case, I will: A.not freeze mascarpone again, and: B. stick to regular tiramisu, at least when preparing for guests.

The good news? I have the rest of that bottle of port to help me get over this travesty!

Pilgrimage to Porto

June 2, 2011

The Portuguese have a saying about their cities: “Lisbon shows off, Braga prays, Coimbra studies, and Porto works.” On our recent trip to Portugal, we absorbed the beauty of Lisbon, skipped the praying and the studying, and took a fast train north to Porto to work very hard at sampling as vast amounts of port wine.

Old Porto across the Douro River

Northern Portugal is known for its lush river valleys, forested hillsides, and the world’s oldest demarcated wine region. Its greatest landmark, the Douro River, runs some 900 miles from deep within northern Spain, across Portugal, and into the Atlantic. And it is there, at the mouth of the Douro, that people from around the world gather to sample Portugal’s famous fortified wine.

The river divides Porto from the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, home to about 30 port-house tasting rooms and cellars (“caves,” pronounced cavesh). From our rented apartment in Porto’s old town, a quick stroll over the Ponte Dom Luis I, a bridge designed by a student of A. Gustave Eiffel – which happens to look a lot like the Eiffel tower tipped on its side, brought us to “Gaia.” Dow, Graham’s, Taylor Fladgate, Kopke —  all the famous brands beckon the thirsty traveler with free samples of their inexpensive white and ruby ports, and then charge anywhere from $10 to $100 and beyond for a mere taste of their finer tawnies and vintages.

Kopke, "The Oldest Port Wine House"

Trekking up and down the cobbled streets, we sampled our way from tasting room to tasting room, making sure to soak up the alcohol with a Porto specialty – la Francesinha (little French thing) – a layered concoction vaguely reminiscent of lasagna that packs a year’s worth of cholesterol in a single bowl. Strata of bread and melted cheese are piled with cured luncheon meats, a slab each of pork and steak and halved sausages, which are topped with more bread and another layer of cheese. It’s all bathed in a peppery tomato sauce, topped with an egg, and baked just long enough to set the white of the egg. And as if that weren’t enough, they spread a helping of French fries around the centerpiece to soak up the extra sauce. I imagine the French are horrified that this dish is named after them, but my husband and I enjoyed it so much that we ate it two days in a row.

Our highlight of Vila Nova de Gaia was touring the Sandeman caves, a centuries-old building on the river’s edge, where the cobbled floor is made from wooden blocks so the oaken barrels aren’t damaged when they’re rolled around.

Hundreds of years of port wine production have stained the floors and infused the stone walls with the musty aroma of fermenting grapes. We heard more information than we could absorb about the differences

Endless Kegs at Sandeman

between whites, rubies, tawnies, late-bottled vintages, vau vintages, and true vintage ports. And all the while, I couldn’t keep my eyes from settling on the barred and locked cellar that stored crates upon hundreds of crates of vintage port – a single bottle of 1906 recently sold for 3000 euro – nearly $4500 dollaresh!

Locked Cellar of Vintage Port at Sandeman

On our last day in the “port zone,” we traveled by train a couple of hours up river along the Douro to the town of Peso di Regua, the historic home of the port wine trade and home of the port wine museum. The hills are comprised or schist, the rocky “soil” imperative, we’ve learned, to producing perfect port. Terraces rise from river to sky, and most of the vineyards are too steep and narrow for modern machinery to navigate—their entire bounty must be cultivated and gathered by hand, as it has been done for hundreds of years.

And there in Regua, in a back-alley-hole-in-the-wall café, we ate the next best thing to a home-cooked meal, ordered with bit of Portuguese, backed up with Italian, hand signals, and peeks in boiling pots. For a mere 13 euro (less than half of what an average meal-for-two has run), we had a bowl of locally-cured olives; bread; cheese; two full plates of meat, veggies, and rice (plus an extra dish of “grellush,” the broccoli-raab like greens sautéed in olive oil and doused with lemon juice that I’ve come to love; a full liter of house vinho tinto (house red); topped off with to-the-brim glass of “illegal,” unlabeled port from a dusty keg in the corner. The lunch and the port—especially the port—is some of the best we’ve yet enjoyed.

After all our hard work tasting port, it was time to fly south to Portugal’s southwestern tip for some rest and relaxation. The sandy coves and rocky cliffs of the western Algarve were once considered the edge of the world and are the former home of Prince Henry the Navigator’s famous navigational school (Magellan studied there). With the sweet taste of her wine still on our lips, we left Porto longing for the days before a precious collection of 3-ounce containers of liquid had to fit inside a quart Ziplock bag, when it was still okay to carry-on a stash of a favorite liqueur to share with family and friends back home.

The Edge of the World