Hello to Spring and San Giuzeppole

At ten minutes ’til midnight tonight, the 19th of March, local Lake Worth time (which is currently Eastern Daylight Time), it’s the official arrival of spring. Tonight marks the midpoint between longest night (Midwinter in December) and longest day (Midsummer in June). It’s the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, where this moment delivers the start of autumn. But no matter where you are on this earth, what is certain is equilibrium: day and night are in balance, all across the globe. And it’s good to have something that is certain these days, no? A little certainty, perhaps, is what we’re all seeking.

It’s been St. Joseph’s Day today, too: Father’s Day in Italy, where San Giuseppe is held in very high esteem. Both of my grandmothers were devotees: Grandma Cutrone would build an altar in her home each March in honor of San Giuseppe, and Grandma DeLuca, she would light candles in front of the statue of San Giuseppe in our church. He’d stand there, holding his lilies and carpenter’s square, watching as she’d light the candle after Mass, whispering prayers to him in Italian into the incensed air. His day is typically one to enjoy zeppole, the sweet Italian lenten delicacy available only this time of year, but alas, zeppole are not in the cards for Seth and me this year. My mom and sister, sheltering through this virus outbreak at their home, had a couple of zeppole delivered to their house yesterday, but Seth and I are too far from Italian bakeries to even be considered for delivery. Some Scandinavian semlor or pulla? No problem. The Finnish and Swedish bakeries are many in our area. But the Italians seem to gravitate to the northern and southern parts of Palm Beach County, a little too far from us in this unprecedented time of delivery-only options.

Seth, he calls the day San Giuzeppole Day. He’s pretty clever that way. We’re both home these days, working remotely. The cat gives us looks sometimes that seem to say, “You’re still here?” It’s been only five days so far of sheltering at home. We’ve consumed three pies and have reduced our physical activity to an occasional evening walk to the lagoon, which is a sharp reduction from the usual nightly fitness and boxing camps we attend. But they are closed and we wouldn’t go right now even if they were open. And so here I sit, typing this, wearing my I Survived the Ultima Summer Fitness Challenge T-shirt, the irony of which does not escape me. For now, though, it seems I need to eat pie and to avoid perspiration. It’s a reaction to too much uncertainty. Tomorrow is another day: one that will be more balanced. That much is certain. Maybe then I’ll follow suit.

If you’re feeling a bit too uncertain, alone, nervous about things––anything that’s making you anxious about these strange times––feel free to write me. Perhaps we can bring all our uncertainties together and talk about them in the forum of the Book of Days Blog. I’ll keep your identity confidential, promise. And if no one writes, I’ll know you’re all ok and we’ll leave it at that. You can post below in the comments section, or write me directly: mail@conviviobookworks.com. We’re all in this together.

Image: I hear there is a movement underfoot to illuminate the night with Christmas lights again, to brighten everyone’s spirits in these dark times. Maybe it’s auspicious that Seth and I never took the lights off our European fan palms at the front door this year. We liked them so much, they still go on each sunset. To be honest, it does lift my spirits to see them each night.

 

St. Urho, St. Patrick, St. Joseph, and Tax Season

I’ve been working on taxes for the better part of several weekends now––my own, and my mom’s, and my sister’s. It has fallen upon me to do this––me, the most disorganized, least mathematical person in the family. But I find there is a certain satisfaction that comes each year with accomplishing this task; it appeals to the part of me that likes to cross things off lists. As in, check. Done. And though I do strive for accuracy, there comes a point each spring where I just decide that it is ok if the federal government receives a little more from me than it is entitled to. A bit of a well being tax, if you will. If it means I can stop thinking about numbers and depreciation and amortization, I feel it is money well spent.

And so it has come to pass that this afternoon, even in the midst of all the files and receipts and checkbooks spread upon the kitchen table, I have just finished playing the Kibble Game with the cat (I toss kibble, she chases it and hunts it down) and I have poured myself a tea bowl full of water, one of Seth’s fine pottery creations, spiked with lemonade, and I’ve put the oven on to reheat some leftover lasagna that my mother made. Seth is outside, working on a garden project. Not a bad Sunday afternoon, after all, despite taxes, and all that’s going on in the world.

It’s a strange time, isn’t it? We are celebrating this week’s saints’ days––days we would normally celebrate as extended family––apart, for the sake of preserving good health. Last night’s early St. Patrick’s Day dinner was canceled, but I did pick up from my mom and sister––while maintaining 6 feet of distance and touching no surfaces in the house––some of the corned beef and cabbage they made, and Marietta’s famous Irish Soda Bread. Not a drop of Irish blood in her, and yet my sister makes the best soda bread I’ve ever had. Each year, it just gets better and better. Seth and I had it with dinner last night and with breakfast this morning, warmed and buttered, and someday, when there is a Real Book version of the Convivio Book of Days, her recipe will be in it. Oh, maybe I’ll just give it to you today, so you can make it this week. We need things to celebrate, no? Even if we can’t these days gather together as much as we’d like, still it is important to appreciate the importance of that gathering. If we can’t do it together, perhaps we can do it virtually. We see these days so many reasons why the Internet and social media are unhealthy for us: the wholesale spread of rumors and bad information, the politicizing of tragedy, the fanning of flames of panic. I try my best to step away from all that, to not participate, and to focus on what is inherently good about contemporary modes of communication: we can, for instance, Skype with our loved ones while we have our own smaller, in-home celebrations. My mother and her sister are on Skype with each other most every night: a beautiful connexion from Florida to Illinois, the two DeLuca girls from East New York Avenue, in their 90s and still chatting with each other before bed. I love this. Sometimes they’re up way into the darkest hours of the night, my cousins and my Aunt Anne and my mom and my sister taking turns watching each other as they doze off on couches thousands of miles apart from each other. They don’t even have to talk. They just keep each other company. How wonderful that we can do this now, just be there for each other, even while apart.

And so what do we have this week to celebrate? To begin with, St. Urho’s Day on the 16th. Urho is the fictional saint of Finland, the Finns’ tongue in cheek answer to the infinitely more famous St. Patrick, whose day follows. St. Urho is said to have driven all the grasshoppers from Finland, saving the vineyards from certain destruction. It’s a holiday and a story you won’t know unless you live amongst Finns, as I do. To be honest, I don’t think you’ll find many vineyards in Finland, but St. Urho’s Day has become a day to celebrate the wine that comes from the fruit of vineyards, so go on, enjoy responsibly.

The next day, of course, brings St. Patrick’s Day. The celebrations this year will be considerably quieter than they typically are. A fine day to appreciate all things Irish. And then on the 19th, it’s St. Joseph’s Day. Father’s Day in Italy, a day when Italian bakers will be serving up zeppole and sfinci, the traditional pastries for San Giuseppe. This year for St. Joseph’s Day, it will be very quiet in Italy. If you do venture out here in the States, stop at an Italian bakery and get some pastry for the day. The bakers will appreciate it, and so will you. Just please, wash your hands after handling the bakery box. Take the advice of the Italian grandma on YouTube (and yes, even my mother has had to give up the Kleenex she keeps in her sleeve).

So much has changed in our lives in such a short time. Socially, economically. For about a year now, Seth and I have been searching for a just-right public space for Convivio Bookworks, as it was feeling like time to move this small business out of our small house and into the broader world. We had been looking high and low through Lake Worth and West Palm Beach. If you had checked with us even just a month ago, we were giving serious consideration to a location on Lake Avenue, a sort of marriage of an existing bookish business with our own, creating a new spin on both, perhaps. We’ve put all these plans on hold, I suppose indefinitely. Making a business move like this is an expensive step, and we don’t have much to work with. Whenever we do make that leap, rest assured it will be a highly calculated move (there are those numbers, again).

And so we continue to do what we do. When you get right down to it, it’s kind of exciting to live in a tiny house and run a business out of it. Open up a closet and you’ll find bed linens and Dia de Muertos ofrenda figures. In the cupboard in the living room, there’s the china and the cutlery… oh and all the handpainted pysanky eggs from Ukraine. It can get dicey at times when someone orders something and I forget where it is. The only guarantee is that when I stored it away, I put it in a very logical place. It’s the logic that is fleeting and ephemeral, for me, anyway.

We are supposed to be at the Social House Spring Night Market here in Lake Worth on Saturday March 21… but to be honest, I am thinking of canceling our spot. I am at heart a homebody, and these days are giving me an excuse to be just that. If you’re local and are curious if we’ll be there, keep apprised on our social media pages (Instagram and Facebook @conviviobookworks). There, another good thing about social media. If you’re sitting home and you’re looking to support small companies like ours, we have some wonderful things available for the spring season (including all those handpainted pysanky eggs we just bought from Ukraine). Your Convivio by Mail orders support real people (Seth and me and the cat and the artisans who make the things we sell). And just think about all the space in our little house you’ll help us attain once we ship your order out! Spend $50 and you’ll earn free shipping on your domestic order. And we almost always throw little bonuses in your orders, too. I think we provide a shopping experience you can feel really good about… and this is a really good time to do it, for the benefit of all the artisans and crafts people we work with.

Please stay well, act wisely, mind your way in this world. And wash your hands. Much love to you all. Now go. Bake some soda bread.

MARIETTA’S IRISH SODA BREAD

5 cups flour (plus up to an additional cup, depending on stickiness of dough)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons butter or shortening
1 cup raisins
1 tablespoon caraway seeds (optional)
2 eggs, beaten (reserve 1 tablespoon for later)
1 ½ cups milk (or buttermilk, if you have it)

If you’re using a stand mixer, place all ingredients in the mixing bowl (except for reserved tablespoon of egg) and mix. Start with 5 cups of flour, adding up to an additional cup, if necessary, if dough is sticky. Next, using dough hook, knead in bowl for a minute or so.

If, like me, you have to mix things by hand, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl. With a pastry blender, cut in butter or shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in raisins and caraway seeds. Add beaten eggs (be sure to reserve 1 tablespoon of beaten egg for later), and then add the milk or buttermilk. Mix well. If the dough is very sticky, add up to 1 additional cup of flour, a little at a time.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 F and butter a 2-quart round casserole; set aside. Flour a board and turn out dough onto it; knead for about a minute. Shape into a ball. Place the dough in the casserole, and in the center of the dough, with a sharp knife, cut a cross about 4” long and ½” deep. Brush dough with reserved egg.

Bake about 1 hour and 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the bread comes out dry. Cool in casserole on wire rack for 10 minutes, then remove from the casserole and cool further on rack.

 

Image: Haden the Convivio Shopcat, snoozing atop some of the boxes of Convivio Bookworks inventory we keep in the house. It’s certainly an interesting place to live if you’re a cat.

 

UPDATE MARCH 16: Convivio Bookworks will be opting out of the Spring Night Market at Social House. We’ll see you at pop-up markets later this year. (Later Update: Social House has canceled the Spring Night Market. This is good!)

 

 

La Quaresima, or Your March Book of Days

And now it is March, and here is your printable Convivio Book of Day calendar for the month. It is the month of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and the month of lent. Forty days, not including Sundays, and they cover March from start to finish. It is the month of many famous saints’ days: St. Patrick’s Day, and St. Joseph’s Day, and St. Urho’s Day, and at the start on this First of March, St. David’s Day, sacred to Wales. The first few days of March that follow St. David’s Day are given to saints who are ancient and largely forgotten here on Earth: St. Chad on the Second of March and St. Winnal on the Third. The three days taken together play a part in old weather lore. St. Winnal’s Day especially is generally expected to be particularly stormy:

First comes David,
Next comes Chad,
Then comes Winnal,
Roaring mad.

But since it is St. David’s Day today, and since it is a Sunday, it’s a good day, I feel, to make Welsh Cakes, which is what I’m planning to do. Here is our recipe:

WELSH CAKES

It’s not uncommon to find recipes for Welsh Cakes that call for regular granulated sugar, butter, and nutmeg, but the traditional recipe will add lard to the mix, use caster sugar in place of the regular sugar, and will be flavored with the more mysterious flavor of mace. If you want the best Welsh Cakes, stick to the traditional version. If you can’t find caster sugar, make your own: pulse regular granulated sugar in a blender until very fine. Do not use powdered confectioners’ sugar, which has added corn starch.

3 cups all purpose flour
½ cup caster sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground mace
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons lard
6 tablespoons butter
¾ cup dried currants
2 eggs, beaten lightly
3 to 4 tablespoons milk
granulated sugar

Whisk together the flour, caster sugar, baking powder, mace, cinnamon, and salt in a mixing bowl, then work in the butter and lard with your fingers until the mixture has the texture of course crumbs. It’s ok if some larger chunks of butter remain. Mix in the currants. Add the beaten egg, working it into the mixture, adding just enough milk to form a soft dough that is not too sticky. Wrap; chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or until you are ready to make the cakes.

Turn the dough out onto a floured board and roll to a thickness of about ¼”. Using a biscuit cutter (scalloped, if you have one), cut into rounds. Gather up any remnants to roll out again and cut more cakes.

Heat a lightly buttered skillet (cast iron works great) over low to medium heat, cooking the cakes until each side is lightly browned (about 3 to 4 minutes… if they’re cooking quicker than that, lower the heat). Let the cakes cool for a minute or two, then set each in a bowl of granulated sugar, allowing sugar to coat both sides and the edges. Best served warm, split, with butter and jam, or, for a more savory treat, with cheese and leeks––leeks being one of the traditional Welsh symbols of this day, along with daffodils.

As for la Quaresima, that is the Italian for lent, and it is such a beautiful word, especially placed against our stark and spare word of only four letters. It rolls off the tongue like a flower: Quaresima. Her symbol in Italy is an old, thin woman, the opposite of the rotund man with a necklace of sausages around his neck, who is the symbol for Carnevale, the time we have just left behind last week with the start of Quaresima. She is known as La Vecchia, and we have made her this month’s cover star. She is here to remind us, like lent does, that our time on Earth is short. So make the most of it. Love each day.

Image: La Vecchia is also known as La Quaresima Saggia, the old sage of lent. Engraving by Guiseppe Maria Mitelli, late 17th century.