Roger Gilbert's posts last week about A.R. Ammons (see June 16-21, 2008) got me thinking about Phylllis Ammons, Archie's wife of 52 years. In This is Just a Place, the 2004 issue of Cornell's EPOCH magazine devoted to Ammons’s work, my favorite of the essays is Phyllis’s brief preface. In summing up the public part of her life with a famous poet, she writes: “It was all very beautiful and very often stressful, but I’m a kitchen person myself. It is the memory of the ordinary life that comforts me.”
I first met Phyllis in 1997 when Archie was very much alive. He had just given a triumphant reading to a packed theater in Ithaca, NY. Phyllis sat quietly in the front row, and when the reading was over, and her husband was besieged by fans wanting his signature, David (Lehman) introduced us. But she, too, was surrounded, so our meeting was no more than a handshake.
Sometime later David and I visited Archie and Phyllis at their home for afternoon tea. Phyllis is renowned for her baking skills, and knowing this gave me the confidence I needed to walk into a new social situation with a literary giant whom I might otherwise find intimidating. A life-long baker myself, I was excited about meeting someone who shared this enthusiasm. Food is the universal language, and those of us with a passion for food and cooking and baking always have something to talk about. [A movie scene I've always liked in “The Candidate” (1972) features Robert Redford, who is running for president, thrust into a photo op with Natalie Wood (playing herself). The two are deep in conversation as they wait for the photographers, presumably discussing pressing political matters. But as the microphone moves in to eavesdrop, we find out that they are talking about what they eat for breakfast (yogurt) and how (with fruit).]
Phyllis’s gastronomic reputation is well deserved. A guest in her tidy home – decorated with Archie’s delightful paintings -- is treated to an array of savories and sweets that rivals those in any patisserie, not just because they are as beautiful and delicious but because Phyllis prepares and presents them with so much care. After Archie died, she took comfort in baking; baking’s demands – the necessary attention to precision and detail -- can give solace to the bereaved.
Once, while browsing in one of Ithaca’s many used-book stores, I came across the 1961 edition of Larousse Gastronomique. It wasn’t until I got it home that I saw Phyllis’s name on the inside front cover: it had been her book. When I told her about this serendipitous purchase, she waved her hand. Oh yes, that was among the books she had recently decided she no longer had a use for, an admission that saddened me at the same time the episode seemed to strengthen the bond between us.
Whenever Phyllis and I see each other – and it’s not as often as I would like -- we catch up on what we’ve been baking lately. During one of those conversations, Phyllis gave me this recipe for biscotti which I hope you will try.
Phyllis Ammons' Biscotti
3/4 c whole almonds w/skins
1/2 c crystallized ginger
1 cup flour
1/2 c sugar
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 large egg 1 egg white
1/2 tsp vanilla
11 x4 " loaf pan
Preheat 350. Butter pan, line with wax paper. Toast nuts, chop ginger.
Sift together flour, sugar, ground ginger, salt, and baking soda, Beat egg and white and vanilla. Stir into flour mixture and mix well. Stir in almonds and ginger and mix to combine. This may take a while as the dough is dry.
Press dough into loaf pan, smooth top. Bake about 45 minutes, until springy to touch. Cool ten minutes. Turn out from pan. With a serrated knife, slice into 1/8" pieces. Place on cookie sheet and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until crispy.
** This recipe lends itself to experimentation: I've substituted sliced almonds for whole, and toasted them first in a dry pan on top of of the stove. I've used semi-sweet chocolate chips instead of ginger.
Substituting sesame seeds for ginger and nuts makes a particularly good cookie that would probably be even better with the addition of lemon rind or lemon extract.
I also use a smaller loaf pan and don't bother with the waxed paper.