Saturday, December 22, 2012

Violins, Not Violence (An Open Letter to Wayne LaPierre and the NRA)

Dear Mr. LaPierre,

We are all traumatized by last week's events in Newtown, Connecticut.  We want answers; what's more, we want solutions.  You've proposed one: put an armed guard in every school.

In itself, it's not a bad idea.  You're right when you point out that lots of places and people have armed guards already, so why not our schools?  As a solution, though, it's pretty naive.  As some critics were quick remind us, there was already an armed police presence at many of the places that have seen terrible mass shootings (Columbine, Virginia Tech); it didn't help.  The police can't be everywhere, so how many would we need?  One in every classroom?  One in every store, clinic, and movie theater?  When would there be enough?

You pointed to the culture as a source of the problem, and that may be a better step in the right direction.  (Although I must say that I thought your comments were simplistic, and I was horrified by your notion that we need to register all people with mental illness.  What a terrible, un-American idea--from a group that passionately defends a constitutional right, no less!)

How do we change our culture and make it less violent?  I have a suggestion.  Let's give every kid in the United States a musical instrument.  Let's teach every kid to play them, and let's have every kid play in bands, orchestras, guitar ensembles, steel drum bands, sing in choirs, and make music any way we can think of.

In all the things I've heard about the shooters, I've never heard that one of them was in a musical group at school.  They're loners.  But you can't be a loner in the choir, band, or orchestra--you have to be part of the group, and people will pay attention to you.  What's more, you get to work with others--all different kinds of others--to make something beautiful and worthwhile.  And if you were troubled and starting to go over the edge, I'll bet somebody in that group would notice and would do something to help you.

This isn't just a pipe dream.  It works.  It's worked in Venezuela's El Sistema.  It works in Brazil, where the government has made music a universal requirement in elementary and secondary schools.  In Paraguay, there's a town where the kids care so much about making music that they construct musical instruments out of things they find in the landfill.

Music is a way of directing energy.  It's a way to show kids what they can accomplish by breaking a problem down to its component parts and working on it consistently and systematically.  It's a way of developing the discipline to persevere.  And in the end, you're making music.  You're doing something constructive and beautiful.

Your problem, Mr. LaPierre, is that you can't see past the end of your gun.  The only solution you can see to gun violence is more guns, which seems a bit like saying that the cure for alcoholism is more liquor.  You want good guys to have guns so that bad guys can be stopped.  I want people to be less interested in using guns for violent purposes.

My idea is no more a panacea than yours is, but it's a lot more positive.  We will need a variety of approaches to make our culture less violent and less dangerous.  So put more armed guards in schools if you want, but put more violins there, too.  Maybe then, the only gunfire our kids will hear is the sound of the cannons at the end of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

David Schildkret

(I teach music at Arizona State University and direct choirs in Arizona and Maine.)

ADDENDUM (Corrected version):  The earlier version of this referred to armed military personnel at Fort Hood as an example of a place where people with arms couldn't always help.  A commenter pointed out that soldiers don't carry weapons on military bases.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Christmas Tradition

One sign of Christmas at our house is the smell of stollen baking.  This sweet, delicate bread is a German tradition, and the recipe we use comes from Sue's family.  It goes back at least to Sue's great-grandmother and is possibly even older than that.

Since I'm the baker/cook, the actual making of the stollen has fallen to me.  It's a bit of a quest, because I make it every year, and I always think that the ones from Sue's family are better.  Best of all are the ones that Sue's Aunt Anita makes.  Anita is now in her 90s and still going strong.  She bakes stollen every year, and hers are the nes plus ultra of stollen--delicious and with a delicate, moist texture that I envy.

We got the handwritten recipe years ago from Sue's mother, but there was an immediate problem:  the recipe called for "1-1/2 pounds of flour (7 cups)."  The problem is that 7 cups is more like 2 pounds of flour, so something was off.  This meant that I was fudging with the amount of flour for years, and I do mean years.  Eventually, I settled on something like 9 cups of flour--much more than originally called for.  But anything less seemed to make a dough I couldn't manage.

Then a summer or two ago, I asked Anita about this.  She mentioned something that wasn't noted in the recipe:  she sifts the flour.  Three times.  It occurred to me that sifting, which would aerate the flour, might affect how much liquid it would absorb.  So I tried it, and while the dough was very soft, I was able to make it with something like the 7 cups called for in the original recipe.  The results were wonderful.

So how much flour should you use?  It depends on your bread-making skills and how you assemble the dough.  If you're an experienced bread maker, and if you mix up the dough by hand (and not with a mixer), you can probably manage with 7 or 8 cups of flour.  If you find this too soft to handle or if you mix the dough in a machine, add more.  The bread will be a little stiffer and more substantial, but it will still be wonderful.

The other secret to great stollen is to bake it until it just done, and no longer.  This year, I baked it at 325 for 1/2 hour (I had been doing 350 for 20 - 25 minutes).  Again, the results were more delicate and delicious.

One last thing:  Sue's mother, Marie, was adamant that the fruit shouldn't be mixed into the dough (as most stollen recipes require).  In her family, the fruit was put in as a filling, with the dough wrapped around it.  The idea is that it resembles the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes.  The fruit filling, by the way, can be any dried fruit you like.  We prefer a combination of raisins, sliced almonds, glace cherries, and candied pineapple and orange peel.  Some people like citron.  Whatever fruit you use, be a bit sparing.  If you put in too much, it will just fall out when you slice the loaf.  Here's the recipe.  (Click here for a printer-friendly version.)

(originally from Sue's mother, Marie Picker Griffin, who got it from her mother, Martha Becker Picker; adapted over the years by David Schildkret)


7-10 c. flour (I use unbleached all-purpose flour; I do not recommend bread flour in this recipe.  Sift the flour up to three times after measuring; use the smallest amount of flour possible.)
1 c. sugar
1 t. salt
grated rind of 1 large lemon
1 lb. butter, softened
3 eggs
2 c. milk
3 cakes, packages, or 3 T of yeast
1/2 c. warm water
brown sugar, cinnamon, candied fruit, and nuts for filling
confectioner’s sugar and milk for glaze

1.  Scald the milk and allow to cool. (I put the milk in a 1-quart measure and heat it in the microwave at 50% power for 4 minutes.)

2.  When the milk is cool, dissolve the yeast in the water.  Add a bit of the sugar, and allow to double in volume.

3.  Combine the yeast and the milk, and add 3 cups of flour to make a sponge.  Allow this to stand until it is puffy and risen to almost double in volume.

4.  While the sponge is rising, cream the butter.  Add the remaining sugar, salt, eggs, and lemon rind.  Combine this with the sponge.

5.  Add remaining flour until the dough is soft, but still substantial enough to knead.

6.  Knead the dough for a few minutes.  It will still be sticky, and it will probably never really be smooth and elastic like sandwich bread dough.

[Let's pause here.  I found a handy tool a few years ago, and it makes dealing with soft dough like this much more manageable.  It's called a bench knife (pictured to the right and available from cooking supply stores like King Arthur), and it's useful for lots of aspects of bread making.  You can use it to lift the dough while kneading--I just keep it in my right hand and scoop up the dough with it, sort of fold it over, and push down with my other hand.  It's also good for scraping up the dough from the work surface and for dividing the dough into loaves.]

7.  Place the dough in a buttered bowl covered with a towel or plastic wrap.  Set in a warm place and let rise until doubled in bulk (2-3 hours).  (One way to get a warm spot is to turn the oven for 30 seconds, then switch it off and put the bread dough in the oven.  Just be careful not to turn it on again for some other purpose!)

8.  When it has fully risen, punch the dough down and form it it into a ball.  Let it rest on the floured counter under a towel for 10 - 15 minutes.  Sprinkle with flour if necessary and knead a few times.  Divide the dough into 4 parts (this number has gradually changed in my wife’s family.  I think they started with 2, then went to 3; we find 4 an ideal size, but we do go to as many as 6 when we are making gifts).  Roll each part into a rectangle and fill.

9.  To fill:  roll the dough into a rectangle of about 3/8” - 1/2” thickness (for four-part dough, the rectangle is roughly 14” x 8” or 9”).  Sprinkle the whole surface with a tablespoon or two of brown sugar, and then with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.  Spread these evenly over the surface--to the very edge--with your hand.  Now, have the long side of the dough horizontal and imagine it divided into 3 columns vertically.  Sprinkle fruit and nuts rather sparingly down the center column (I use raisins, candied orange peel, candied cherries, candied pineapple, and sliced almonds.  Resist the temptation to be overly generous:  the filling will just fall out when the bread is sliced!  I use only about 3 or 4 cherries on a layer, for instance, and I cut them in half.  Similarly, I use only 2 or 3 pieces of pineapple and slice them each into 2 or 3 bits.  A small container of orange peel easily fills all four stollens.).  Then fold one side over to cover the filling and press down gently.  (You are folding almost like you would a business letter, except that you are doing it from the side.)  Sprinkle the sugar, cinnamon, and goodies over the new top, and fold the second side over.

10.  Place on a greased baking sheet and allow to rise covered with a towel for 1/2 hour-45 minutes.  Proceed to roll and fill the remaining dough.

11.  After they have risen, bake the loaves at 325 - 350 degrees F. for 1/2 hour-45 minutes, depending on the size.

12.  Glaze:  If you prefer a clear glaze, mix 1 c. confectioner’s sugar with a few T of water or milk and drizzle over the loaves while they are still quite hot.  I prefer to see the glaze as white streaks, so I wait until the loaves are cool.  Mix 1 c. confectioner’s sugar with 2-3 T of milk, and drizzle off the end of a tablespoon using a side-to-side motion across the short dimension of the finished loaf.  Sue’s mother adds a dash of vanilla to the glaze, but I do not.  I find that it turns the glaze a muddy color, and it does not add a noticeable flavor.  It is more reasonable to add the vanilla if you are glazing warm loaves.

13.  Store tightly wrapped once the loaves are completely cooled and the glaze has hardened.

As you can tell, this is a bit of a project.  I usually enlist some helpers for filling the dough--everyone has one or two things assigned to them that they sprinkle on.  My oven will only hold two loaves at a time, but that's no big deal--I shape all four loaves, and then I bake them two at a time.  The second two rise an extra half-hour while the first two bake, but it doesn't seem to hurt anything.

The trick will be to keep from eating a whole loaf by yourself the minute it comes out of the oven.  But remember, the holidays are about sharing--so share!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The World's Simplest Pie: Key Lime

A confession:  I wrote this entry months ago, but I wanted a photo.  I took the photo and promptly forgot the whole thing.  Just now, I went to post a holiday recipe and found this lurking.  So here it is.  The holiday recipe (for Sue's family stollen) is forthcoming.

The actual post:  The headline here isn't hyperbole--the only way a pie could be simpler would be if you bought it from the store.  All you have to do for an amazing Key Lime Pie is to combine lime juice with some sweetened condensed milk, stir it up, and pour it into a pie shell.  Then you top it with something.  If you're really cooking challenged, it could be whipped cream.  That's all there is to it.  Really.  And it comes out fabulous.

Of course, I do have a couple of tricks that make it a little nicer, but you could make a perfectly acceptable pie with just the basic steps I mentioned there.  (And if you prefer lemon pie, you could use lemon juice instead of lime.  I've done it.  It's delicious.)  The lime flavor will be more intense and brighter if you put a little grated lime rind into the custard, and stirring in some egg yolks gives it a nice richness.  Plus then you have some egg whites around to make a meringue for the topping, which I prefer to whipped cream for this pie.

That leaves only the crust to be considered.  In a pinch (and I've done this more than once), you can buy a graham cracker crust at the grocery store.  This doesn't seem like much of a compromise to me:  what difference does it make if you crush store-bought graham crackers or if they do?  But after I discovered Galletas Maria in Venezuela and found that they're pretty easy to come by in grocery stores in the US, I decided that those might make a good crust for Key Lime Pie--and they do.  Their flavor, less distinctive than graham crackers, complements the lime better.  So if I have time, I'll take the extra step of making a cookie crust of my own.  You could use a pastry crust if you prefer.  (Click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe.)


1 5-oz (140 gram) package Galletas Maria
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Pulverize the cookies in a blender, or the bowl of a food processor, or by putting them in a plastic bag and rolling over them with a rolling pin.  Combine the crumbs with the butter and sugar, then press the mixture into a shallow 9-inch pie pan.  (I push it in there roughly with a spoon or rubber spatula, then smooth it out by using a smaller pie pan as a press--I push the smaller tin against the inside of the crust until it's even.  You could use the bottom of a drinking glass to accomplish the same thing.) 

Bake the crust for about 10 minutes, until it is lightly browned.

Cool the crust completely before going on.


1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
grated rind of two small limes (about 1-1/2 inches in diameter)
1/2 cup lime juice (I squeeze the limes I've grated, then top it off with some bottled Key lime juice--Key lime juice has a more intense flavor than the regular kind.  Using some fresh juice brightens it up a bit)
4 egg yolks

Beat the egg yolks.  Add the milk and the lime rind and give it a stir.  Finally, add the lime juice and stir it with the whisk until it comes together.  Pour it immediately into the cooled pie shell.  (The citrus juice causes the condensed milk to form a custard.  No cooking is needed.)

Once this is done, proceed immediately to making the meringue topping.


4 egg whites, preferably at room temperature
generous pinch of cream of tartar (Cream of tartar is tartaric acid.  Acid helps to stabilize the meringue and gives it greater volume.)
1/2 cup sugar (If you can get it, superfine sugar is fabulous for this.)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Beat the whites with a mixer until they're frothy.  Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form.  Add the sugar and beat until the meringue stands up in stiff peaks.

Carefully spread this on top of the custard in the pie.  Be sure to seal the meringue right to the edges of the crust.  Bake in the oven for 12 - 15 minutes to brown the meringue.

Cool on a rack, then refrigerate for several hours before serving.

It's true:  this recipe uses raw eggs.  If you're worried about salmonella, you can omit the eggs and top the pie with whipped cream.  If you do that, wait to put the whipped cream on top of the pie until just before you serve it.

This pie--and the way people scarf it down--remind me that if things are good, they don't need to be complicated.  Early in my cooking days, I favored recipes with lots and lots of detailed steps:  somehow I thought it was better if I did more work.  Along the way, I've learned that quality and complexity are not necessarily connected.  As with so many things, if it's good, it's right.