East of Paris Bookstore

Friday, March 25, 2011

Cooking and Not Looking - Halva Variation

When watching television in the evening, Mr. Wonderful often looks in my direction and asks if there are any brownies, knowing full well that there aren't.  I take the hint and make a batch during a commercial break, then bake them until the program is over. It works out well, since both of us love the results. Last night was different.

Brownies contain butter and eggs, which we are to avoid during Great Lent.  So, in answer to Mr. Wonderful's dessert hint, I said, "no problem, I'll make Halva." Eaten from the Balkans to India, halva is an East of Paris dessert that I grew up with. It has a melt in your mouth sweetness only made better with sips of Turkish Coffee.  

Usually, we buy a marbled chocolate vanilla variety made from pressed sesame seeds. Sometimes we buy the kind with pistachios. On occasion, I make a version with farina [a/k/a semolina]. Consider this a sophisticated cream of wheat dessert.

Before I set forth the recipe, I have to explain why the results last night were, uh, problematic. This goes back to the time I got married. A group of girlfriends came to my new home and helped me arrange the kitchen. One of them put all the spices in the cabinet in alphabetical order, and I have been diligently keeping them in alphabetical order for more than ten years. Or so I thought, when I reached for the cinnamon and accidentally took out a jar of cayenne pepper. Unfortunately, I did not realize my mistake until we started eating the halva.  Oops!
This morning, I made the semolina style halva again, but first I arranged all my ingredients so that everything was mise en place.  I even decided to be daring and enhance things with a bit of cayenne. The results were met with approval.

Semolina Halva
3 Tbsp farina/semolina
1-1/4 c. water
1 Tbsp. butter or margarine
3-1/2 Tbsp. brown sugar [lumps are OK since they will melt]
1/2 tsp. vanilla 
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne pepper

Melt the butter or margarine in a heavy sauté pan on medium high heat. When it sizzles, add the farina.   Heat and stir with a wooden spoon until the farina starts to color. [This part is similar to making a roux and seems to take a long time, but once the farina starts to darken it goes fast, so careful not to burn it.]   

Next, quickly add all the water and stir. While the farina is rapidly boiling, add the rest of the ingredients. Keep cooking over medium high heat until the mixture becomes very thick.  

When you can run a wooden spoon through the mixture and can see the bottom of the pan, it is almost done. Cook for another minute, then  place in a shallow bowl. 

Decorate with walnuts and cool.

The finished halva can be eaten warm or cold and should be soft but thick enough to hold together when cut with a knife.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Paris When it's Cold

A friend is going to be in Paris in mid-November. I wonder if I should let her know about a few things ... like being prepared for frigid weather. I've been there in Octobers and Novembers and the cold and rain are unforgettable. Once in a pelting rain the wind blew my umbrella inside out and I had to get a new one with a string to keep it from being undone by more wind. Another time, when I was staying at a very charming small hotel near the Seine in the 6th Arrondissement in early October, the hotel would not turn on the heat until October 15 regardless of the onset of an early ice age. I remember having to toss my coat on top of the bedspread to try and keep warm during the night.

Paris is a city that makes one want to walk and walk and walk, the architecture and the parks are that lovely. So, if prepared for the weather [hat, gloves, scarf, raincoat with lining] and for the kilometers [serious walking shoes], here are some things to see:

The courtyard of the Louvre                                                                     
Boats on the Seine
L'Assemblee nationale (l.); Les Invalides (r.) housing Napoleon's tomb 
La Place de La Concorde near the US Embassy and near the Hotel Crillon [Thomas Jefferson stayed there according to a plaque on the wall near the lobby]
On the Île de la Cité the medieval looking Palais de Justice, which houses the fabulous 


Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris -- enormous, iconic not to be missed

Les bougies

Interior vaults
La Madeleine
And, if you get to La Madeleine on the right bank, it means that Fauchon and its fabulous chocolates is just around the corner and Hediard is on the next corner. Both are perfect stops for coffee, lunch, and shopping for delicacies. The prices will make US Starbucks seem like a bargain, but just grin and bear it: Paris has never been a destination for the overly thrifty. And, then, refreshed, there is time for more walking and window shopping ...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pacific Perils

An earthquake with a magnitude of 5.8 hit Yingjiang of southwest China's Yunnan Province on March 10, 2011. This event was quickly overtaken in the news by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake in northern Japan and the ensuing tsunami and problems at a number of nuclear power electric generating stations. My heart goes out to all those who have been harmed by these quakes and their after-effects. Effects so great that they caused related destruction and death thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean in Crescent City and Santa Cruz, California.

It is hard to understand how big a 9.0 quake is. Living in California we worry about the "big one" happening. Not a constant worry, just something in the back of one's mind.  And the Richter Scale, which measures the size of earthquakes is logarithmic. Basically, that means that each succeeding whole number on the scale represents a shaking 10 times greater than the prior number.  So, a 6.0 is 10 time stronger than a 5.0.  A 7.0 is 10 times stronger than a 6.0 and 100 times stronger than a 5.0.  Even though I experienced the 6.7 Northridge quake in 1994, I find it impossible to imagine something more than 100 times stronger. 

I also cannot imagine being in the vicinity of a tsunami and surviving. We first heard of the quake and tsunami in Japan early in the morning. The television news warned that waves generated by the tsunami would reach the California coastline around 8:00 a.m. I stood on our terrace and looked at the ocean. As long as I could see the usual patch of sand past the palm trees, I felt OK. Were the waives higher than normal or was it just my imagination? Are we high enough above sea level or does our closeness to the ocean make that issue irrelevant? I stood marveling at the beauty and deadliness of the sea for about a half hour.

Only later that weekend did I return to the television news casts and became inundated with news about the problems at the nuclear power plants in the vicinity of the earthquake and tsunami. I have followed the news reportage on the power plants with interest and disappointment:  

 -- With interest because my high school senior science project was about nuclear power plants. And, my class and I visited a plant under construction in northern Illinois. I vividly remember the massive size of the containment buildings and cooling structures compared to the "small" size of the reactor core. With interest also since we now live north of "SONGS" and have been given potassium iodide tablets for use in case of a radiation leak. I previously wrote about those tablets here. My doctor says that they are probably still good after their official expiration date since I've kept them refrigerated.

-- With disappointment since it is very clear that most news reporters and commentators know little about math and science and most of their pronouncements sound more hysterical then factual. While one does not wish to under estimate any danger, over estimating it is not useful either.

For more insight I called a nuclear engineering scientist I know:  Dr. Jasmina Vujic at UC-Berkeley.  She has been answering reporters' questions and providing assistance to the nuclear engineers in Japan; she appears in in the video here and is also quoted here.  She also concurs with my assessment of news reporters, though in much stronger terms.  Overall, the engineering situation seems tough but more will only become known in the future.  It is too early to draw firm conclusions regarding the extent and full nature of the problems at the power plants or to determine optimal solutions.

Meanwhile, many people around the world are involved in humanitarian efforts to help the victims.  Including the US Navy. I often see naval vessels on their way in and out of San Diego. Below is a photo I took with a zoom lens at the end of February and then enhanced the colors using iPhoto. If you double click on the image to enlarge it, you will see a helicopter coming in for a landing at the back of the ship.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Monastic Retreat

I am embarking on a new chapter in life.  For me, the best place to start this chapter, to think and reflect, was in a distant desert at the St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery in Safford, Arizona. It is a place of stark beauty and deep quiet.  A place to let go of the irrelevant, a place to pray and to meditate.
St. Paisius is a women's monastic community some two and a half hours east of Tucson or about three and a half hours southeast of Phoenix.  It is located off of a dirt road south of the town of Safford.  In other words, it is not easy to reach. I cannot visit frequently -- the last time I came was two years ago with my mother, then a few years before then with Mr. Wonderful. I never quite know what I will find as a result of a visit. But I do know that the journey, the visit, and the imprint it leaves are all worth any effort.
Looking into the church from a side chapel
Beeswax tapers made by the nuns
I arrived at St. Paisius Monastery on Forgiveness Sunday, the day before the start of Great Lent. The sisters held a Vespers service in mid afternoon followed by dinner and then Compline. 
The new Iconostasis
Afterwards, there was time to visit with the other pilgrims and to walk around the property and see the fruits of the nuns' labors.  Since my last visit, they have planted an olive orchard and also have fig and apple trees and pomegranates.
Apple blossoms
Monday, the first day of Great Lent was very quiet. There was a morning church service at 4:30 a.m., but I did not attend. Perhaps my excuse, that I slept badly, is weak, but in the deep silence of the desert, I kept waking up that way I do not in a more noisy urban area.  In the night I heard some dogs barking and then wondered why the chirping birds kept me awake.  Mid-morning I had a brief talk with the Igumanija [the Abbess], then walked around the property snapping photos. Later, while I was in my room reading, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives by the Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, a strong and noisy wind storm passed through, blowing tumbleweed, sand, and dust. It made the feeling of isolation even stronger. I just kept reading and a few hours later, the wind died down and it was time to leave.

Even though my visit was brief, just over 24 hours, it seemed long.  More accurately, it seemed that time was not relevant.  I did not miss any of my electronic gadgets like my mobile phone [forgotten at home] or my laptop [kept turned off], which occupy many daytime moments.  Without the usual trappings of quotidian life, it seemed there was more than enough time for everything.

A few more photos ...

The design of the floor medallions in the church comes from the star motifs often included in the veil of the Theotokos [i.e., Virgin Mary] in icons portraying Her.

Allée of dormant pomegranates
A four legged friend and his house ...

Chirping birds
The work never ends ...
Peaceful sunset 
Desert beauty
P.S.  There is a dress code to visiting a monastery.  I mentioned it in my post about Aegina.  Modesty is the rule:  long sleeves, head scarf, longish skirt [no trousers for women or shorts for men].  Also, since St. Paisius is in a desert, shoes need to be comfortable and covered to keep the sand out.

P.P.S.  There is silence during communal mealtimes.  While the nuns and guests are eating, one of the sisters reads aloud.  At an certain point, the Abbess rings a bell indicating that the reading should come to an end, at which point she may comment about the reading or other significant matters.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Arizona Biltmore

While in Phoenix for some golf (sigh!), Mr. Wonderful and I stayed at the Arizona Biltmore, a luxurious reflection of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.  
 Geometric Geishas with Navaho Corn motifs
I am never sure whether I like Wright's architecture.  Is it classic or dated?  What about the contrasts between light and dark spaces? Sometimes it seems almost like the effect of Polaroid sunglasses worn indoors.  What about the custom furniture?  Some comfortable, some not. What about the engineering?  Will the stone be cracked and will the skylights leak?
A recent article in The Economist magazine, titled Restoring Wright, comments on the difficulty of preserving Wright's home, Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  I also recall the leaky roofs and cold winter drafts at my prep school, The Prairie School, in Racine, Wisconsin. 

On the other hand, there is something about the details and the design itself -- a unique combination of simple and complex, modern with hints of Japan, Tiffany and the Arts and Crafts style of the Green brothers -- that draws me to keep visiting examples of Wright's work.
The Biltmore Sunroom which had WiFi
Intriguing details are everywhere.

Another reason to return
And, another ...


This is my 144th post on the 1-year anniversary of this blog.  144 = 122  which works out to an average of 12 posts per month that generated 5000 hits or visits.  Not bad, considering that I have not done this before nor have I had any readership goals.  Initially I did not know if I would have enough to write about over the course of a year. Then it became a question of time and dedication.  It has been fun.  So, I will continue and see if I can blog for another year.  

Many thanks to all of you who have visited this site from all over the world and commented either here or via email.  

Below is a list of countries (in order of frequency of visits) where East of Paris has been read ...


 United States



 Czech Republic


 United Kingdom




 Russian Federation

 Puerto Rico











 Hong Kong










 Moldova, Republic of








 Satellite Provider


 New Zealand




 Bosnia and Herzegovina



 Iran, Islamic Republic of

 Saudi Arabia



 Korea, Republic of




 South Africa







 Dominican Republic



 United Arab Emirates









 Sri Lanka

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