Friday, August 27, 2010

Pie pops

I'm not much of a baker.  Not that things generally turn out badly when I bake, but I don't do it very often and I'm wildly inefficient.  There are a handful of things I'm comfortable making, but my skill set doesn't necessarily translate to other projects.

However, last night, I made pie pops.

Every year since 2005, my friends and I have gathered for a potluck feast on the afternoon of another annual tradition.  Every year, my contribution has been baklava.  Baklava is something my family has made at least annually for as long as I can remember, so it wasn't a big deal.  But last year ago I saw this post on luxirare, and became smitten with the idea of pie pops.  Little pies on sticks!  I think the blog's elegant photos had a lot to do with my interest, but either way I was hooked.  It seemed like a fun project for a gathering, and since this year's potluck is later in the season than usual, it seemed like a good fit for summer.  I hadn't made pie since junior high cooking class, and I had vague plans to do a trial run earlier in the year.  It never happened.  So yesterday after work, sink or swim, it was on.

The luxirare blog is lovely, but didn't offer step-by-step instructions.  Internet research turned up a helpful instructables article by scoochmaroo and post by bakerella.  I wanted to use more than one filling, and chose two that seemed summery to me: the peach filling from scoochmaroo, and the filling for a blueberry pie recipe I found on allrecipes.  I seriously considered making my own pie crust, but in the end decided to use store-bought dough.  Thank goodness.

As mentioned above, I'm not an efficient baker.  I started the project at 5:30, and - including a 30-minute break for dinner and another 30-minute break to accomplish some random tasks later on - I finished at 11:30.  Five hours to turn out sixty pie pops.  Probably not a speed record.

One of the most time-consuming parts was - sadly - peeling, pitting, and chopping four peaches.  It must have taken me the better part of an hour.  How is that even possible?  The recipe claimed that if I boiled the peaches for five minutes and then transferred them directly to ice water, they would peel easily.  This was a lie.  I ended up using a vegetable peeler.  Also, I am the worst chopper in the world.  Partly because I have don't have a good chopping knife, but mostly because I'm just bad at it.  Slippery skinned peaches aren't the easiest things to finely chop.

The blueberry filling was relatively simple.  The only change I made to the recipe was adding a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice and increasing the cornstarch as suggested in the comments.  I put the fillings in the fridge and ate dinner while I preheated the oven and took out the pie crusts to warm up.   Then the assembly line began.

The most time-consuming part of putting the pie pops together was sealing each one with the end of a lollipop stick.  Still, I made decent time.  The pops baked at 375 for about 15 minutes per sheet, and I was usually almost ready to put the next sheet in the oven when one came out.  Each roll of crust made 12-15 pops on the first go-round, and I used two double rolls.  I rolled out the remains for the last sheet and got eight more.  I could have kept going - I had more crust in the fridge and barely made a dent in my filling - but sixty pops was all I could handle in one evening.  I hope I find time to make a pie or two with my remaining ingredients before they go bad.  A full-sized pie seems like such a simple task now.

How did they turn out?  I'm not sure.  They didn't burn.  A beaten egg white wash gave them a nice crackly look on top.  The blueberry filling leaked in a colorful manner, but the pops all maintained their structural integrity.  I only tried one, a peach pop from the first batch.  It was tasty, and lot hotter than I expected inside, which led to some undignified open-mouthed hand flapping.  The pops have a high crust-to-filling ratio, but I guess that's to be expected with tiny pie.

Once they were cool, I slid each pie pop into a treat bag and fastened it around the stick.  About halfway through, I grew paranoid: what if the plastic made the pie taste funny?  I was too far along to turn back, though, and the bags themselves had no discernible scent.  I'm hoping for the best.  I put a color-coded sticker on each bag - not that it isn't obvious which pie is which - and put them all into a box in the fridge.  Ready for transport!  Please don't let me forget them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Half of it's you, half is me

Ever since it was announced live on an internet webcast in early April, I'd been looking forward to Wilco's Solid Sound Festival with a mixture of excitement and dubiousness.  What would a multimedia festival curated by Wilco be like?  Would everything work out?  What if it rained?  Would enough people really travel to a small town in western Massachusetts for the weekend?  Would too many people come?  Would I hate it, like I hate most music festivals?  

Last weekend, I got my answers.  My three travel companions and I mustered in Albany on Thursday and took the scenic hour's drive to North Adams, arriving in the late afternoon.  We parked the car in the Holiday Inn Berkshires lot, and there the car remained until Monday morning.  Before long we were out and about, admiring the green hills and abundant church spires in the distance.  We ran into a festival-working friend who mentioned the museum grounds were open, so we headed down the street for our first look at MASS MoCA.

We weren't the only people wandering through the museum's outer courtyard that afternoon, but there weren't many.  A front page newspaper story on display in the hotel lobby likened the Friday-Sunday festival to a winter storm, advising locals to gather supplies and then remain indoors if possible.  In that case, we figured, on Thursday afternoon, we were the flurries.

The museum complex looked promising, and I was itching to explore the brick buildings of this former textile mill and electric factory.  MASS MoCA opened about ten years ago, and now houses unique installations of contemporary art.  This seemed like a cool setting: so far, so good.  And when Jeff, tooling past on a bicycle, stopped to welcome us to the festival - well, it was time to throw my preconceived fest notions out the window for the duration of the weekend.

That's pretty much how the next four days would go.  So many friends, artists, bands, and comedians taking up temporary residence in a small town made it feel like summer camp.  Surreal, arty, rock and roll summer camp.  Summer camp if summer camp had Magic Hat beer and Intelligentsia coffee instead of bug juice; an all-star dunk tank instead of a lake.  If arts and crafts consisted of luthiers making guitars and artists silk-screening posters in place of lanyard weaving.  If the camp boy-girl dance featured The Numero Group spinning funk and soul for a dancing mass of fans, guests, and talent alike under a giant outdoor movie screen.  You know, that kind of summer camp.

On Thursday evening we took a short preview tour of the museum, met the director, explored the poster hall and Pat Sansone's Polaroid exhibit, saw the interactive drum head installation being set up, and decided against taking a trolley for a joyride.  On Friday we met more arriving friends, and made our first of many trips to the closest (sneakily Canadian) brunch cafe.  We thoroughly toured MASS MoCA, winding through all the exhibits and spaces.  We played with Glenn Kotche's drums (with a few tips and tricks from the crew), and watched Nels Cline turn on his Solid Sound Stomp System for its first official session.  Nels originally planned five stations instead of two, but there were still more than enough pedals to keep everyone busy.  I think I saw a few gear geeks shedding tears of joy.      

On Friday evening, Solid Sound began in earnest.  After drinks in town (the Baseball Project guys got an early start at the Mohawk), we were ready for the music to begin.  Kicking things off right was Pronto, playing to a packed house in the Hunter Center.  Post-dinner we caught some of The Books, who were enthralling visually as well as musically.  The night ended under the stars with The Numero Group's DJ set.  Relaxing on the deck among friends, I thought: okay.  I can totally get behind this whole concept.

Saturday, the longest day, was hectic but fun.  Things I saw: Tony in the dunk tank, John in the dunk tank, the music of Brenda, the comedy of Hannibal Burress, Glenn nailing a woman (his words) during On Fillmore's set, The Baseball Project, Mavis freakin' Staples, and Wilco.  Mavis was amazing, and Wilco played "Laminated Cat" electric with the full band - something I've been wanting to see since Nels joined the band approximately six years ago.  Another Numero Group dance party and various shenanigans followed.

Sunday, the last day of the fest, was more low-key.  We began the day at a local church's community pancake breakfast.  While dishing up sausage and fluffy, delicious pancakes, the volunteers were eager to discuss Solid Sound.  They were proud of the festival and enthusiastic about Wilco, though most had never heard of Wilco before the band took over their town.  I hope all of us fans served as good ambassadors.

After running into Kristen Schaal in the gift shop and getting Paul's book signed at last, we settled in for our final day of music.  The Deep Blue Organ Trio got things going in Courtyard A, and Outrageous Cherry's upbeat set followed in the next courtyard over.  We visited the dunk tank, where our star pitcher Rob took down both soundman Stan and Mike Jorgensen - twice.  The Nels Cline Singers provided a loud late-afternoon soundtrack in Courtyard C, before the gates opened for Jeff Tweedy's solo (+) performance.  As the + in the festival billing hinted, Jeff brought up various guests to play with him that afternoon.  We heard "Ingrid Bergman" with Nick Zammuto from The Books, "Look Out For My Love" with Avi Buffalo, and "Tennessee Porch Swing" with Sir Richard Bishop.  "Dash 7" with Nels Cline sounded eerie and beautiful as a light drizzle began to fall.  "It's Just That Simple" with The Autumn Defense had the crowd singing along with gusto.  For the last songs, Jeff brought up the rest of Wilco (minus Glenn) for a six-man acoustic - and a little electric - jam.

In the end, it seemed everything fell into place and the fates smiled on this inaugural run of Solid Sound.   Things could have gone badly if the days had been rainy - the indoor spaces weren't really equipped to handle a festival's worth of guests all at once - but the weather remained gorgeous up until Sunday afternoon.  By the end of the Jeff's festival-culminating set the rain had arrived, but by then it just felt like a final flourish.   I don't think it's too much of a leap to say that most people left North Adams hoping a new summer tradition had been born.  To my surprise, I was one of them.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

There's no other show like it 'round here

Though it was a tough call, The New Pornographers edged out The National in my choice of August 4th concerts.  Geography was the major deciding factor: The New Pornographers were coming to me, after all.  It was also the night before a big work deadline, and Tamala and Rob were coming to town.  As if I needed any further motivation,  I was eager to see another show on this tour with Neko Case and Dan Bejar.

The NP's didn't disappoint, delivering an energetic show at the Orpheum.  It was hot inside, prompting the installation of a large fan at the front of the stage near the beginning of the night.  This was a relief to ... well, Carl Newman, who was pretty much the only person who could feel it.  Dan, too, when he took a turn on vocals.  The New Pornographers don't vary their setlists as much as some bands, but we heard a couple of songs in Madison that hadn't been played in Milwaukee: "Go Places," and the deep cut from 2003, "July Jones."  The latter was a request from Neko, so thanks, Neko!  As for the rest of the songs, I was happy to hear them again.  I don't think I'll ever tire of singing along to "The Bleeding Heart Show," and there's just something fitting about "The Slow Descent into Alcoholism" being played on State Street.

The Dodos opened the show, as in June, and their vibraphone player returned later in the evening.  He first reappeared behind us in the crowd during "Use It," dancing and cheering like a madman, much to the amusement of audience and band.  Neko was incapacitated by laughter for part of the song.  Later he took a seat on a riser next to the stage and watched closely from his perch, finally joining the band on stage (along with the Dodos' drummer) for "Testament to Youth in Verse." This was one of the Dodos' final shows with the NP's, so it was nice to see the cross-band participation on both ends: Kurt Dahle also came out and drummed on one of the Dodos' songs.  

I would have enjoyed the show no matter what, but I have to mention the most amazing thing about the concert for me; something that wasn't even directly related to The New Pornographers.  The show was at the Orpheum ... and the stage was low.  Every concert I've seen at the Orpheum over the past ten years has featured a seven-foot stage, necessitated by the layout of the balcony.  But on Wednesday, the balcony was closed.  And the stage was waist-high.  If this could happen every night, I'd look forward to Orpheum shows so much more.

After the concert I purchased a show poster, because I didn't have a New Pornographers poster yet.  It will join the lovely and extensive collection of posters that lives in the master closet, unframed.  Though I'm not sure when I'll see The New Pornographers again, I return to the Orpheum next month.  I don't suppose there's much hope that the balcony will be closed for The National, but a girl can dream.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A fresh wind and bright sky

Sixteen weeks.  That's the amount of time between the middle of April (Pennsylvania) and July 30th, when I saw Wilco at Coveleski Stadium in South Bend.  It's not a long time at all, considering the schedule of most touring bands.  But by my spoiled, semi-local and travel-friendly Wilco schedule, it seemed like long enough.

Coveleski Stadium is a baseball park, and Wilco played a run of minor league ballpark shows last summer. I didn't make it to any of those, so South Bend was my first foray onto the infield turf for a concert.  Friday's show was the band's first in the U.S. since that run of aberrant and fantastic shows that comprised the spring "Evening With" tour.  This concert was billed as Wilco's last midwest appearance of 2010, and the crowd filed in with high expectations.

First up was Yo La Tengo, who played an enjoyable set slightly marred from our position by muddy sound.  They joked that Wilco was headlining and they were opening because Wilco spent the time before the show practicing in the dressing room ... while Yo La Tengo sneaked into the room where the mascot uniforms are kept and took photos of themselves.  

Wilco took the stage in the last light of the midsummer night, reminding me of my affection for outdoor shows.  Half of the band looked comfortable in t-shirts, which was indicative of the prevailing mood: lots of smiles and casual banter, though the music was very much on the ball.  The setting, and intermittent drizzle, afforded plenty of lyrical tie-ins throughout the evening.  "Side with the Seeds," with its well-timed line about the park growing dark, left Jeff looking pleased with himself.  "Broken Arrow," which I first heard covered by Wilco on a snowy night in February, couldn't have felt more different - and somehow more fitting - under the stars.

Thirty songs were played over two and a half hours, giving South Bend a lengthy and varied performance.  Many standards didn't see the light of day (or the moonlight of night), leaving room for other less-played tunes.  "Box Full of Letters" and "Can't Stand It" kept the energy up, and "Either Way" remains one of my favorites to hear in the great outdoors.  The dangers posed by birds in such a setting were not overlooked by Jeff, who joked after "Say You Miss Me" that he didn't want to meet the same fate King of Leon had earlier in the month.  He was quick to point out that Wilco wouldn't leave the stage under similar circumstances.  In fact, "we've had roadies crap in our mouths and kept playing!"  Thanks for that visual.  

For the last encore, Wilco invited Yo La Tengo back to the stage for Big Star's "Thank You Friends."  It was an upbeat finale that left the audience wanting more, but by then it was 11:00 p.m.  My only South Bend regret was the omission of "Kicking Television," which was on the setlist but not played.  We did hear it through the gates during soundcheck, which is better than no song at all.

I spent the rest of the hot, sunny weekend in Chicago.  There were delicious meals out (Longman & Eagle, Bongo Room, Kuma's), strolling around the lake and museum campus, more music (Mission of Burma at Wicker Park fest, Algebro at Martyr's), and a lovely patio party at Kristina and Julio's.  In just over a week I'm off to the Berkshires, and then there's that little solo show coming up in my friend's basement.  I have plenty to look forward to before the next drought begins.