Sunday, April 24, 2011


This blog is not about these guys.

I've had this topic rolling around in my head for a month and a half, so here we go.

I saw Rent at the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music. (That's CCM to you and me).

My love and personal feelings about Rent are well documented on this blog, and in previous incarnations, so I was predisposed to loving it. Or maybe I wasn't? I think I wanted to love it, but I think that actual love was much less a given.

I certainly did find it moving, and beautiful, and full of heart. I was definitely weeping like a fucking baby through most of Act 2. I really did love it. It was one of those experiences where I wanted to commiserate with anyone and everyone about every little detail, so I started checking out the reviews, and...many of them just merely liked it, (but with reservations). Some of them didn't like it. I couldn't believe it! They said things about how the show wasn't gritty enough, or raw enough, or real enough or something. Clearly I disagreed, but I also started wondering if maybe the reaction was inevitable. Perhaps CCM saddled itself with an impossible task.

I start to think about how Rent, for many people of my generation, exists in this sort of otherworldly level of reverence... It's the signature musical of my formative years. It's like West Side Story for people who were teens in the late 50s, or Hair for kids from the early 70s. There have been very few musicals in history that have held the same importance for the people who saw it as Rent did during it's Broadway run. Hell... The Office just used "Seasons of Love" in the most recent episode.

Rent captured a particular part of our culture unlike any other theatre piece in my lifetime. Some may have been "better", but none were more iconic. Rent combined many of the ideals of the mid-Nineties artist life, and the still very, very real plight of the AIDS epidemic (three of the main characters have it). It also had the added publicity and notoriety of the extremely sad, tragic death of writer and composer Jonathan Larson, who died the night before opening.

Oh... and it's also, more than anything, beautiful and visceral and memorable.

Okay, so it's great and all those things I've talked about, but why did CCM have no chance?

Because, I believe that some things are, for many people, untouchable. You can't remake The Godfather. When an actor plays Colonel Jessup in the stage version of A Few Good Men, they have to be compared with Nicholson. People could make amazing covers of Yesterday, but it will never be The Beatles. In each of these cases, the public knowledge and sentiment for the original makes it impossible to truly be measured independently.

Every musical theatre nerd has a copy of the original cast recording of Rent. Every single one. You ask most buffs to name the actors in that cast, and they come up with them in short order. Quicker than any other show of the time. It's like naming the 76 Cincinnati Reds for a baseball fan.

Every Tom Collins singing "I'll Cover You" will be compared to Jesse L. Martin. The little inflections of every Roger and Mimi will be compared (usually negatively) to Adam Pascal and Daphne Rubin Vega's rendition of "Light My Candle". Idina Menzel is the gold standard for "Over the Moon". That's just the way it is.

I think Mia Gentile, who played Maureen at CCM, is better than Idina Menzel. I'm not forgetting who Idina Menzel is. It doesn't make that original, Tony winning performance, any less iconic or spectacular. It certainly doesn't diminish her performance as Elphaba in Wicked. But yeah... i said it. Mia Gentile can sing the ever-loving shit out of that music, is exceptionally well trained, and just rocked it from moment one.

Max Chernin's performance during "I'll Cover You" made me cry like a little tiny baby. This doesn't make that one track on disc 2 of the original cast recording any less worn out. I've had to replace my copy of Rent two times. This is owed in no small part to Jesse L. Martin's heartbreaking performance. That said.. If I remove my sentiment, Max absolutely crushes his performance, and no amount of nostalgia for singing that song along wtih Jesse L will change that.

I'm not saying that this was a better production than the original Broadway... What I'm saying is that I don't think people have the ability to separate their very personal feelings for this particularly personal show that means so much to so many of them.

The thing is, though... as great as that original production was, I wonder if maybe people haven't... I dunno... Made it even better in their heads. Is it possible that what people consider grit is really just Daphne Rubin Vega not being that great a singer? (OH, NO I DIDN'T!!) Is it possible that Adam Pascal really does kind of sound a little wooden, if you're listening real hard? (OH, YES I DID!).

The thing is... it doesn't matter. The original cast of Rent is untouchable. It's impossible to separate the Legend from the Reality anymore. So... Basically, no matter the artistry of the CCM production (or any other), the people who choose to view any new production in the kaleidoscope of the original can never be good enough. To be honest... I've seen Rent three times in Cincinnati, and this was the first where I actually thought that even someday the specter of the original could potentially be pushed enough aside to view it independently. The two tour productions I'd seen before were both good, but not great. Not productions I'd wanna see again.

I'd have gone to see CCM's show over and over.

Can anyone think of other untouchable performances or productions? Does Gus Van Whatshisface's remake of Psycho make you angry?

PS: Apparently I've mentioned Rent so much I have a tag for it.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Mysterious Case of the Little Green Flecks

I'd planned on using Bugs Bunny as my lead image, but this was too effing adorable.

I made my triumphant return to my "Adventures in Baking" series last Sunday evening, and it certainly was an adventure.

First some background...

The Tofu Muchacha is currently in training for the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon on May 1st, and last Sunday I accompanied her on her 18 mile training run. By "Accompanied" I mean "drove to meet her every 6 miles to give her more water and moral support". It was fucking exhausting.

So once we got done, she went home and showered, and we ventured to breakfast, and planned the rest of our day. I'd had a sort of hankering for some baking lately, and we discussed any number of assorted things. I really wanted to make something that wasn't overly sweet, and maybe kind of spicy... but still a baked good.

The Muchacha suggested I bake cupcakes. For whatever reason I have this apathy for cupcakes. I just can't get into them. I know that they're simply small cakes, and there's really no other difference, but for some reason I just can't get behind them. I don't know why. In any case... At first, I sort of poo-pooed the cupcake idea.

And we went round and round about the different types of things I could bake. Ultimately, we settled on a spiced carrot cake. That had me at least marginally interested, because I'd never made carrot cake before, and I effing LOVE carrot cake.

I think the TM knows me pretty well, because she knew she had me hooked on the Carrot Cake plan, so she went ahead and suggested I make Carrot Cake CUPCAKES. And... I agreed. What else could I do? She's so purty and persuasive.

So off to the store I went, to pick up the necessities, and below I present my mis en place:

That's right. Actual carrots! Who knew? I don't know what I thought would be in there, but I admit that I was surprised I'd be shredding up real carrots. Some other notable things you may note: Crushed Pineapple! Cayenne Pepper (my own idea)! Chocolate Chips (also me). You can't really see it here, but there's also coconut that is to be folded into the cream cheese frosting. The pecans...well... also my idea, and you'll see about those. Oh... you'll also note... There's nothing green. This will become important.

I should tell you that the recipe called for nuts in the cake itself, and I'll just be honest with you... I don't like nuts that are baked into baked goods. that goes for cakes, brownies, cookies. Pretty much anything. You put a crunchy nut into a wet cake batter, and then you bake it, and that nut (while giving nice flavor) loses my favorite feature, the aforementioned crunchiness. So... out with the nuts. It called for a half-cup of them, and I put in a half cup of chocolate chips. That's what we, in the business, call "trading metal money for paper money".

I am pretty sure that whenever I bake, I make the TM totally insane. I tend to doubt myself, and start on a certain path and then it kind of feels wrong, so I then call on her guidance. After her 18 mile run (and no nap after), she wasn't in much of a mood to do much assisting, so there were... ehm.... errors along the way.

The first thing the recipe told me to do was to grease and flour the pan. The TM had shown me a good method of greasing the pan during another adventure, so that was no problem, but I had not a clue how much flour to use. I didn't even know that was done! I mean... I knew for things like rolling boards and whatnot, but for cupcake pans? Not a clue. Of course, this wouldn't have been an issue if I'd wanted to use those dumb paper things, but I hate those, so fuck that. Here's what the pan ended up looking like:

I bet you thought it'd be absolutely covered in flour, didn't you? Well... I went the other direction. More on that later too...

Most of the recipe was pretty standard. Mix the wet ingredients together:

Two Eggs, Two Cups of Sugar, One cup of oil, and two teaspoons of vanilla. I may or may not have accidentally spilled maybe an extra teaspoon of vanilla in there. I didn't take a picture of the mixed wet ingredients, because... it looked gross.

Two cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking soda** , some salt, some cinnamon, and some cayenne pepper. I know... maybe I go to the Cayenne well a little too often with my baking, but damnit.. I love a tiny amount of heat to go with the sweet. I've never had it fail me. In this case, I probably didn't even put enough in to be noticeable.

** The above photo shows the difference between a Tablespoon and a teaspoon. You know how some people need to hold up their thumb and index finger in the shape of an L to remember their left and right. I need to do something to keep these mother fuckers straight... Because... that's right... There was likely a Tablespoon of baking soda in the cake mix, not two teaspoons. Fortunately, I caught myself after the first Tablespoon, or it would have really been a mess. O would it? I honestly, don't know what baking soda does. So... after all that fun, I went ahead and mixed the wet and dry together, just like they say, and it came out looking pretty, pretty dry.

I hoped that the the raisins, chocolate chips, carrots, and pineapple would wetten (is that a word? Is it "whetten"?) the batter up a bit. So I shredded up the carrots... there's a picture, but I bet you all know what shredded carrots look like, and mixed it all up. The recipe called for me to drain the crushed pineapple before mixing it, but I'm really glad I reserved the juice (at the suggestion of the TM), because before I added that in, that shit was dry. Like... "There's no way this is a cake batter" dry. Like... dry enough for the TM to say "yeah... that's not right.". Fortunately, I did save the juice and it ended up looking okay:

Doesn't that look delicious? I filled the tins (a little unevenly, I admit), and set the oven for 350 degrees, and let them bake for 24 minutes while I made the frosting and special topping. Here's what it looked like in the pan:

The TM asks that you focus on the cupcakes and not the oven.

So while that was going, I started working on the icing. If I do say so myself, I make a mean icing, and I'm much more confident in that, than I am my actual batters... This one was easy. Two cups of powdered sugar, one package of cream cheese, 6 TABLEspoons of butter, some vanilla, and a cup of coconut.

Here's a completely self-explanatory picture.

I've been experimenting with candying nuts. It started back in January when the TM candied some pecans to put on this delicious salad we took to a dinner party. I have since made a couple of batches of candied almonds and a batch of candied pecans, using various mixes of sugar, salt, and spices. I wanted to add my own little twist to the cupcake recipe, so I decided to candy some pecans, chop them up, and sprinkle them on the top of the cupcakes (You know... to make them look pretty.) This is not in opposition to my previous comment on nuts, because while the baking process makes them lose their crunch, the candying process makes them crunchier. (and covered in sugar). This time, out of necessity, I used brown sugar:

It ended up getting hot much quicker than white sugar, and I almost burned the hell out of them, but they came out pretty much like usual. I didn't salt them, or add other spices, because I wanted to keep them simple. Let me just say... there's nothing like a sweet, sugary nut in your mouth.... uh... that came out wrong. The nuts cooled quickly on a sheet of Pam'ed aluminum foil, and then I chopped them up.

Round this same time, the cupcakes themselves were done, and I popped them out of the oven.

I may have over baked them juuuuust a little, but they definitely looked pretty. The part that spilled up over the edge was sweet and crunchy and pretty delicious. Of course, the part after I took the pan out of the oven was the worst part of all.. I had to wait for them to cool.

The TM will tell you that of all of my negative traits, my worst is impatience. I probably checked those damned muffins 40 times to see if they were cool enough. Once they were, I popped the fuckers out and let them finish cooling on the racks.

This is where that little bit about now knowing how much to flour I needed to put in the cupcake pan comes into play. All of those chocolate chips sank to the bottom of the cups and were a bitch to get out. I bet I lost about a quarter of the chocolate chips to the bottom of the pan. Clearly, I should have added more flour. They don't look real pretty around the edges, but how bout that color?

So down the home stretch, I slathered some frosting all over the top of each cupcake, and sprinkled some nuts on top of that, and they came out looking pretty delicious, in a rustic sort of way...

And yes... they really were delicious. I had a ton of batter left over, but didn't feel like going through the full process of baking, cooling, and frosting another dozen, so the TM poured the remainder into a cake pan, and made a one layer cake. I gave the same treatment to the top, and she took it to her show to feed the cast on Opening night.

Here's where it gets weird.

On Friday evening, she called me from the show and said " Everyone likes your cake, but we're dying to know... What are the little green flecks?"

And I sat there, and couldn't figure out what the hell she was talking about. I wracked my brain trying to think of something green that might have made its way into the batter, but there's nothing.

Despite the fact that I put nothing green into the batter, and nothing green into the frosting, there were green flecks all throughout the cake.

I never noticed them, personally, but the TM said she'd seen them in the cupcakes as well, and that they were there from the start... At least that should eliminate the possibility of some sort of aggressive mold. The only thing that we can think of is that there may have been some sort of chemical reaction with the pineapple, or maybe I didn't do a good enough job cutting the green ends off the carrots. I honestly can't figure it out... Do any of you, my loyal readers, have an idea of what it could be?

Some last thoughts on the Carrot Cake Cupcake Adventure...

1) I added cayenne, but I couldn't taste it. Maybe someone with a more developed palate than mine would be able to taste it. So I think I'll leave it out the next time. They came out pretty well.

2) The chocolate chips were good, but not great. I think I would use smaller ones next time.

3) I think I would use dried cranberries instead of raisins the next time. I liked the raisins, but I think the tart cranberries would be interesting with the uber-sweet frosting.

4) Speaking of the frosting... I used sweetened coconut. Was that wrong? Should I have used unsweetened?

Until next time, this has been The Beefy Muchacho's Adventures in Baking!