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Whenever I work on a show, I’ve been known to spend my day off (Mondays usually) doing some baking.  Then I bring in the fruits of my labor – and my KitchenAid stand mixer and oven – for the cast and crew the next day.  Not only does this give me something to do on my day off, but by knowing that I am baking for someone else, it helps me control my own sweet tooth cravings.  It’s also a nice way to start the work week. Nothin’ says lovin’… However, sometimes, if the mood hits me, I will go ahead and bake at night after I get home from a show, and, sometimes, even in the morning if there’s enough time for the baked goods to cool down properly.

One of my "morning recipes" is a chocolate cake one that I came across in a New York Times article about cocoa powder.  It has no eggs, no butter, but the resulting cake is amazingly moist, and has a good crumb.  It’s also very "sink friendly", since there’s only one bowl and one measuring cup that needs to be washed afterwards.  (Those disposable aluminum cake pans also help in this regard.)

Well, one morning before a matinee at Arena Stage – I think I was doing Damn Yankees at the time – I decided to make a cake to take in for the company.  I had already made a cheesecake the night before, but I wanted to bring in something with chocolate too. So, I brought up the recipe for "Amazon Cake" on my computer, scribbled down the amounts on a Post-It note, and proceeded to get to work in the kitchen.  I went ahead and doubled the recipe so that there would be plenty to go around – there were usually about 30 mouths to feed.

When I had finished mixing everything up, I noticed that the batter looked very thick, too thick.  Oh, I guess I didn’t double the amount of water.  Of course, when I went to check the cakes at their designated finish time, they were still a soupy mess… But I did notice that the edges looked like they were cooking up properly. Thankfully, I had started baking early enough that morning, and I was able leave them in the oven to finish baking.  Sure enough, after another half hour or so, the cakes looked good.  The tops sprung back properly after being touched, and my toothpicks came out clean.  So, I just left them in the pans, and placed them in the back seat of my car to cool during the trip in to the theatre.

I placed my goodies on the table in the green room, and gave a brief disclaimer about the cakes.  I explained how I had gotten myself mixed up while doubling the recipe, but since the finished products came out looking "right", I went ahead and brought them in.  Two brave souls – a bass player and a props runner – were the first people to try the cakes.  I cut each of them a slice…  Hmm… They have a different texture, and look different on the inside… Hmm...  The bass player took a bite of the wedge I had handed him, gave me a questioning look, then stated, "It tastes OK, but it’s definitely not the same as last time."  He then proceeded to eat the rest of his slice.  The props girl took one bite of her slice, promptly spit it back out onto her napkin, let out a confused scream,  "Ewwwww! It tastes like Chinese food!!!"  I then took a bite, and, yes, it had a strange hint of "Chinese Food", both in texture – sort of like a steamed rice flour cake – and the chocolate flavor was obliterated by notes of ginger and toasted sesame oil(???).  I promptly took them off the table, dumped them into some bags, and threw them in the trash.  "Why are you doing that?" asked the bass player.  -Here, have some cheesecake.

When this cake is made properly, it really is quite wonderful, and it’s very easy to mix up in the morning, afternoon or evening. If you properly double the recipe, it can be baked in two round cake pans (for a layer cake), or in one 13"x9" pan (with a slight increase in the baking time).  I have doubled the recipe successfully since that "Chinese food" incident, but, to be on the safe side, I made two individual batches, side by side.

Amazon Cake
From "The New York Times"
Adapted from "Cafe Beaujolais" by Margaret Fox and John S. Bear
serves 6 to 8

1 ½ cups flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 t. baking soda
1 cup sugar
½ t. salt
5 T. corn oil
1 ½ t. vanilla
1 T. cider vinegar
Confectioners’ sugar.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, sugar and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, vanilla and vinegar with 1 cup cold water. Whisk in the dry ingredients, blending until completely lump-free. Pour into a greased 9-inch round cake pan. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the top springs back when pressed gently. Cool before removing from the pan and dusting with confectioners’ sugar, or frosting if desired.

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Wow! That’s a lot of eye-shadow… And perfume… Whoa!
Hi! And what are you singing today?

(Puts music on piano)
That’s not going to stay on the piano – Put it in a binder!

Well, I’m just gonna start here, and then at the end, I hold the note for a bit longer. I’m sorry I don’t have this in a book.
Well, at least she apologized for not having it in a binder.
OK. How slow do you want to take it?

Tap-Tap-Tap-Tap
Hmm… That’s a bit fast.
That seems a little on the fast side.

Oh, yeah, I tend to like it faster than normal.
What’s normal?!?!?
OK.

I’ll just give you a head nod to start. Can you play my first pitch for me right before I start singing?
No, I’m not going to give you your pitch, bi-yatch. You should have that pitch ingrained in your head. Of course, I’m going to give you your pitch, Duh!
Sure. Do you want me to come right in with you? or just catch you on the downbeat?

Yes.
Do not roll your eyes, Do not roll your eyes…
OK.

Thanks. And just wait for my head nod.
I heard you the first time. And it’s written on your music.
OK.

(Goes to center of room. Looks down. Takes deep breath. Nods head.)
(
Play pitch…)

Oh, not yet.
You said to start after you nodded your head…
Oh, I’m sorry.

Just wait for my head nod.
But you did nod your head.
Yes.

(Puts head down. Takes deep breath. Looks at me. Nods head.)
(Play pitch…) Oh, she does want me to play the lead-in with her…

Although he may not be the man some
This is "normal"…

Girls think of handsome
Get to the pitch, get to the pitch…

To my heart he carries the keeee-…
Almost there… Almost there…

-eeeey
Ouch!

Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed,
What were those notes?… Damn, this pedal squeaks

Follow my lead,
This is the end of the group, right?

Oh, how I need
Looks like two more to go till lunch

Someone to watch
Falafel or Chinese?

over me
Oh! she’s taking the turn around ending…

Someone to watch
Someone to give

O-
me

-ver
a

me.
clue.
-eeeeeeee… And she’s not holding that last note out..

(Comes over to piano.)

(Hand her her music.)

(Starts to walk out of the room.)

You’re welcome… You’re Welcome… You’re Welcome…

Next!

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"White.
A blank page or canvas.
The challenge: bring order to the whole.
Through design.
Composition.
Balance.
Light.
And harmony.”

So begins Sunday in the Park with George. Book by James Lapine. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. The original Broadway production opened in 1984, and the Roundabout Theatre Company is currently presenting the first Broadway revival of it at Studio 54. This current production is a transfer (more or less) and a slight expansion of the critically acclaimed Menier Chocolate Factory (London) production from the 2005-06 season. I attended the show earlier tonight. I could go on and on for pages and pages about the show, the original production, the current production, the plot, the painting, etc., but I’d rather try to put into words some ideas, some ramblings that came into my head tonight as I watched the show. The show just started previews this past Friday, and does not officially open for a few more weeks. So, I’m going to refrain from reviewing it… Well, at least not comment in detail about it.

At its core, Sunday is about Art, Artists and Relationships. The Art here is Painting. The Artist here is a somewhat fictionalized George Seurat in Act 1, and his most definitely fictionalized great-grandson, also named George, in Act 2. The Relationships run the gamut: Artist and Subject, Man and Woman, Lover and Lover, Mother and Son, Mother and Daughter, Mister and Mistress, Man and Himself… However, none of that can begin to cover what happens during the course of the show’s two acts, and my apologies to those of you reading this post who may not be as familiar with the musical as I am. And, yes, Sunday in the Park with George is a show I know backwards and forwards.

All it has to be is good.

I never saw the original production of Sunday in the Park with George on Broadway.* The first time I saw the show was when it was broadcast on cable television in early 1986, and then again a few months later when it aired on PBS. By the time I had seen the show on TV, I was already infatuated with it via the cast album. Seeing the show, however, made me fall in love with it. The timing could not have been better. I was in my Senior year of high school. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go to college, or that I even want to go to college at all. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to pursue Music on more than just a casual level. I kept asking myself, “What do I do next?” Well, the work of Lapine and Sondheim, coupled with that iconic physical production, answered that question for me. I learned it was OK to be an Artist, a Musician; at the very least, to pursue Music as a career. I also learned it was normal to be confused about the future, to not know what’s coming next. To find the joy in the possibilities. And so I went to college down in Richmond, VA, majored in music (piano performance), and graduated. Then came the usual post-graduation question, “Now what?”

Work is what you do for others, Liebchen,
Art is what you do for yourself.

After college, I somehow picked up a few decent gigs music directing and playing for shows in and around the DC area. However, my steady source of income came from working as a clerk at a music store in their sheet music department. It was an easy job for me since I had been one of the store’s more frequent customers; consequently, I was already familiar with their stocking and ordering process even before I was hired. That kept me solvent for a while, although I did end up buying quite a bit of music at the employee discount. In the fall of 1996, I was asked if I would be interested in playing the local auditions for the upcoming production of Sunday at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. -Yes! I was then brought up to New York City to play the auditions there. After a short break in the process, I started playing rehearsals in March, then moved on to playing keyboard in the pit for the run of the show. The show opened in April, and closed June 15, 1997. I had basically been with the show for almost seven months – from practically Day One to Closing Night.

The whole experience is one I will treasure forever. I discovered a lot about myself. A lot. It was also the first time I truly felt like a Professional Musician. It was my first Real Gig! And, best of all, I was making money doing what I loved. I was also blessed with a Dream Cast (at least in my head it was a Dream Cast), and a lot of close bonds were made – especially since I had met the members of the cast at their initial auditions. I was there from their Day One. I still remember after the final performance, after we had all packed up our stuff and were heading up to the cast party, going up to hug Sal Viviano, who had played George, and starting to cry. And cry. I know I cried for at least five minutes. Then I did the same thing a couple of minutes later when I ran into SuEllen Estey, who had played Yvonne/Naomi. They were tears of Gratitude, of I’m-Going-To-Miss-You, of I-Don’t-Want-This-To-End.

Alas, the very next morning, I found myself driving my grossly over-packed Ford Escort station wagon to my next gig. In the Amish Country of northwestern Indiana.

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Well, I guess you could call this the "optional audience participation" part of "A View From The Piano Bench". From time to time, I thought it would be nice to share a favorite recipe. So, without further adieu…

But first…

I came across this recipe a couple of years ago while watching Sara Moulton’s show on the Food Network, "Cooking Live" (which is no longer in production). Wayne Harley Brachman was the guest that day, and this is his recipe. I was intrigued by it since it only called for one stick of butter, and one egg. Most cookie recipes I had come across up until that time usually called for at least two sticks of butter and two eggs. One stick of butter and two cups of oats: Healthy! Well, the finished product looked good on TV, so I decided to give it a try. It immediately became one of my favorites, and a favorite of many a cast and crew at Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, the Kennedy Center… ("Oh! He bakes too!")

The ingredient list is composed of pantry staples – although, there have been a few times when I’ve found myself running to the store after setting up my mise en place to fetch some maple syrup. It’s also a pretty flexible recipe. Well, I make it flexible. Sometimes I will vary the type of chocolate chips – milk chocolate, semi-sweet, dark (or a combination of milk and dark!). Other times I will swap out almonds for the pecans. I’m also fond of gilding the lily by adding a healthy scoop of toffee chips to the original recipe. And to totally switch it up, white chocolate chips, dried cranberries and pecans work well together too.

I have found that regular rolled oats work best in the finished product, but if you happen to have a canister of quick-cooking oats you want to use up, no harm, no foul. Although, the recipe calls for a mixer, it can easily be put together by hand – the creaming of the butter and sugars is the part of the recipe requiring the most elbow grease. Parchment paper comes in handy for "staging" the next batch while one bakes in the oven, and it makes clean-up a breeze too. The 9 minute cooking time has never really worked for me – and, trust me, I check my oven temps – but it may work for you. Otherwise, 11 minutes seems to be the optimal time, switching and turning the pans after the first five or six minutes to promote even cooking and browning.

The recipe doubles beautifully too – which is what the accompanying pictures reflect.

Don’t forget the milk!

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
Recipe courtesy Wayne Harley Brachman

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups rolled (old-fashioned) oats
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Set 2 racks in the middle and upper thirds of the oven and preheat to 350F degrees.

In a medium bowl, stir the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, oats, and pecans together with a whisk or fork. In a large bowl, beat the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar together for 30 seconds until blended. Beat in the egg until smooth and barely fluffy. With mixer running on medium high, drizzle in the maple syrup and vanilla until incorporated.

Turn the mixer down to its lowest setting and gradually add the flour-oatmeal mixture. Blend just to combine, then mix in the chocolate chips.

Drop walnut-sized balls of dough onto a nonstick or parchment-lined cookie sheet at 3-inch intervals. With moistened fingers, flatten and round out the cookies a little.

Bake for 9 minutes, turning the pan once for even baking. The cookies are done when they are lightly browned on top. Set the cookie sheets on a rack to cool.
Yield: about 36 cookies

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A few weeks ago, I gave myself what you might call a self-administered reality check. I went to my shelf of music books, and pulled out a few "old friends": Bach’s "Two-Part Inventions" and "English Suites", Mozart’s "Rondo in A-minor", and Brahms’ "Fantasy Pieces, Op. 116". I had studied and performed a couple of Bach’s "Two-Part Inventions" early on, as almost all piano students do and will continue to do. I occasionally dabble with the English Suite in A-minor (Bach for grown-ups!), and the Mozart has always been one of those pieces that I know I will play some day. As for the Brahms, they were part of my Senior Recital in college (along with some Bach, Ravel and Ginastera).

My own "Classical Period" basically ended almost as soon as I graduated from college. Since then, I’ve made my living playing shows and show music. Broadway shows, tours, some cabaret work, and lots(!) of auditions. Due to orchestrations and economics, whenever I play in a pit of a show, I’m usually playing on an electronic keyboard (synthesizer), and not a real piano. Consequently, my fingers get and have gotten lazy over the past couple of years. No matter how "good" the feel and action is of a weighted keyboard, it will never truly feel the same as playing on a real piano. The vibrations just aren’t there. Of course, what do I usually practice on? -A Kurzweil PC-2X that I bought a couple of years ago. It has a decent piano sound, a decent "feel", but it is still nowhere near like playing a real piano. Not even the beloved Chickering upright my parents bought when I first started taking lessons. (Alas, my parents gave away that Chickering a few years ago without telling me. Even though it was not really my piano, it still was my piano. I still remember how I felt that day when I came home to visit, and noticed that the piano was no longer in the garage. An old, dear friend had gone away, and I never got a chance to say, "Goodbye.")

Even though I still listen to Classical music on practically a daily basis, I don’t play Classical music every day. So, every once and a while, I go back and read through some of the music that I grew up on just to keep my fingers "honest"; to remind me of how I used to play, and to reclaim (hopefully) some of the dexterity I’ve lost since finishing my degree.

I started with the Mozart. What a truly magical and mystical piece of music. Thankfully, it fits well under my fingers, and, technically speaking, it’s not that difficult. So, it was an easy read, and once I was done, I felt like I had spent enough time with it for the time being, and put it away. I would definitely come back to it again later.

I moved onto Bach. I started to read through the A-minor English Suite, and about eight bars into opening Prelude, I sadly realized that it had become a stranger since the last time I had pulled that score off the shelf. It was no longer in my fingers. OK! Moving on —

As soon as I started playing the first Two-Part Invention in C-major, there was something automatic, something very familiar. -And after that debacle with the English Suite, there was also a welcome sense of comfort and relief. After I finished the first one, I just kept turning the pages, playing each of the succeeding ones, sometimes stopping to fix things, sometimes just playing on. After I had read through all of them, I went back to the one in F-Major. The F-Major Two-Part Invention is one of those pieces that just says, practically yells, "I’m Bach!" And I’d bet if a person only knew one or two pieces of Bach, this would most likely be one of them. Or they would at least be able to identify it as Bach if they had not heard or seen it before. -Thank you, Wendy Carlos!

I went back to one of the fundamental ways of practicing: hands separately. I started with my right hand, playing that single line that is sometimes melody, sometimes accompaniment, sometimes both. Then I did the same with the left hand. Then it was back to the right hand. Wow! Was this piece this difficult when I was ten-years old? My brain just started to notice things it never noticed before, and those two lines of music became so much more than the sum of its parts. When I finally put both hands back together, I had a few train wrecks, a few stumbles… Oh, the counterpoint!.. Oh, the figure does this here, then this there… Hmm, I would love to check another edition to see if that note might be different… After spending more time on that than I ever thought I would – and after playing it through with almost no finger slips – I moved onto the Brahms. My fingers were warmed up, and my brain was most certainly in gear.

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Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we’ve no place to go,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Yes, Let It Snow! However, I suspect that my sentiment – well, my inflection – is a bit different from what the great lyricist, Sammy Cahn, had in mind when he penned that tune with Jule Styne. “Frightful" weather – Check! “Delightful" fire – Check! "No place to go" – Check! So… Let. It. Snow!

We’re about halfway through Winter right now, and we have yet to experience any significant snowfall here in New York City. Yes, we did have some snow back in December, but when I mean significant, I mean significant.

Remember back in 2006, how it went from this:

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And then about 14 hours later, to this:

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I like Snow. It’s Winter. I am in New York City. And I want My Snow. I want it blanketing Central Park, capping the Angel in Bethesda Fountain. I want it covering the sidewalks. I want it to look like some picture postcard from days gone by, or at least like those framed color laser copies the street vendors sell. However, I’ll even take an image from the Metro section of the New York Times. Yes, snow is pretty when it’s all white and fluffy, but even I know – I remember – that it’s gotta melt sometime. Does all that slush get messy? Yes. Does it make you watch your step as you descend into the depths of the MTA? Yes.

It’s Nature. It’s Winter. It’s Cold. It’s Snow. There should be no surprises there.

I know my fondness for Snow and Winter may not be shared by everyone, and I will admit that if I had happened to grow up in colder and snowier – or warmer and sunnier – climes, then my current state of mind might be different. In the meantime, I really am hoping for some Snow. Heck, I took those snow pictures two years ago. In February. And we’re not even through January yet.

Now, to be fair, I do like the other seasons too. And in the spirit of equal time, here a few pics from Warmer Months Past.

summerblossom2.jpgSummer Blossom

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But I have to say, those trees in Central Park and the fountain in Columbus Circle also look pretty darn good with some Snow on them.

Do Not Look In The Window! Do Not Drool On The Glass!

Over the past couple of months, the area around 72nd Street & Broadway has become a Dieter’s Temptation Island. Anyone planning on sticking to their New Year’s Resolution to cut out "The White" (sugar, flour and shortening) is strongly advised to keep walking past some of the new store fronts that have opened in this portion of the Upper West Side. However, if you do wish to test your resolve and/or carb-butterfat-consumption limit, have I got a Walking Tour for you!

The recent opening of Magnolia Bakery’s UWS branch seems to have signaled some sort of truce in the Cupcake Wars of years past. Or not. In any case, having Magnolia so close to one of it’s many offspring, Buttercup Bakery, means that UWS-ers no longer have to head down to Bleecker Street in order to get their originally-fueled-by-"Sex & The City" sugar fix.

This CupCake & Cookie & Chocolate (oh, yes, there’s Chocolate too!) Walk starts at Magnolia Bakery’s new location. The remaining stops may be taken in order as you zig-zag up and over to 72nd, up Amsterdam, and then over to Broadway, or you may wish to circle a block two between gobs of buttercream. Of course, whether you choose to stop-in and consume or not is totally up to you. And possibly your cardiologist.

You can start this CC&C&C Walk at 72nd Street at Broadway (1/2/3 trains) or at Central Park West (B/C). Either way, you can get a nice warm-up walk on your way to Magnolia Bakery. After your CC&C&C Walk is completed – and mind you, you don’t have to complete this all in one day – it’s probably best to walk back down Broadway to Columbus Circle to catch your train at 59th Street. (Just be sure not stop by Bouchon Bakery on the third floor of the Time-Warner Center.)

Magnolia Bakery – 200 Columbus Ave. (at 69th St.)

Buttercup Bake Shop – 141 W. 72nd St. (between Amsterdam & Columbus)

Grandaisy Bakery – 176 W. 72nd St. (Amsterdam & Columbus)

Jacques Torres Chocolate – 285 Amsterdam Ave. (73rd & 74th)

Levain Bakery – 167 W. 74th St. (Amsterdam & Columbus) – COOKIES!

Crumbs – 321 1/2 Amsterdam Avenue (75th & 76th)

Grom – 2165 Broadway (76th & 77th) – Gelato (and Hot Chocolate).

Beard Papa Cream Puffs – 2167 Broadway (76th & 77th)

If you would like to pick up a bottle of something red to counteract the effects of all that buttercream, I recommend stopping into Pour (Amsterdam at 75th). If you time your trek right, you might end up stopping by during one of their daily wine-tastings. And sometimes they even serve hor d’oeuvres. Salty ones.

Levain

Part of one of Levain’s Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies

Here we go. Well, here I go at least.

Welcome to My Blog. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll be writing about over the next couple of days, weeks, months, years… But I’m sure I’ll be writing about something every now and then.

Music. Theatre. Musical Theatre. New York City. Family. Friends. Acquaintances. Strangers. Food. Books. Magazines. Origami.

Something for almost everyone.

I hope.

-Jose