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Aloha Vaudeville Doll / Ariana-Sophia KartsonisThis month's giveaway: A copy of the freshly released chapbook by Poppycakes herself: Aloha Vaudeville Doll, from Dancing Girl Press. Comment on any February post or share it on Facebook or Twitter to be eligible to win. 

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    Panforte - a guest post from the delightful Mary Poole

    Panforte is a delicious cross between a cake and a confection. It’s often called a fruitcake, but since that conjures up images of stale, drugstore cakes that can be used as door stops, I prefer to use the original Italian term, which means “strong bread.” The origins of panforte go back as far as 13th century Siena and there are some records that indicate that the Crusaders took panforte along on their journeys, no doubt because it stays fresh for several weeks and tastes even better after its flavors have had a chance to ripen and mellow.

    It’s a relatively easy thing to make, though it does require lots of chopping and numerous ingredients. Panforte’s ingredients tend to be costly, so I usually reserve this for holiday gift-giving. This is my standard recipe, but feel free to improvise or change the recipe somewhat. Want is spicier? Add a little bit of red pepper. Really like ginger? Add a little more than the recipe calls for. Not a fan of figs? Use dried plums instead. As long as the total amount of dried fruit does not change, and you use a mixture, the panforte should turn out fine.

    Helpful Hints

    • Candied orange peel can be purchased online from King Arthur Flour, but it’s really quite simple to make your own and can be made days and weeks ahead of the panforte. I make a large batch once a year and I freeze it. Here’s a link to a simple recipe from The Food Network: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/food-network-kitchens/candied-orange-recipe.html
    • If you happen to live near any ethnic grocery stores consider purchasing some of your ingredients from them. Middle Eastern and Indian markets are great sources for inexpensive spices, nuts, and dried fruit. Often, they sell spices by the ounce, which means that you can buy only what you need.
    • The recipe calls for two 8 -nch cake pans, but if you wanted to make smaller cakes to give as gifts, you can use mini loaf pans. Just be sure to carefully watch the cakes and reduce the total baking time.

    (Prep time 45 minutes-Bake Time 60 minutes-makes two 8 inch cakes)

    3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

    1.5 cups of all-purpose flour

    2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

    2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

    1 teaspoon ground coriander

    1 teaspoon ground ginger

    1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

    1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

    1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

    ¼ teaspoon of ground cloves

    2 cups of whole unsalted almonds, toasted (I’ve used sliced almonds as well and it’s turned out fine)

    2 ½ cups of hazelnuts, toasted and skinned

    2 cups of dried apricots cut into ¼ inch dice

    2 cups of dried mission figs, cut into ¼ inch dice

    1 cup of dried cherries

    1 cup of candied orange peel, cut into ¼ inch dice

    1 ½ cups of granulated sugar

    1 ½ cups of honey

    ½ cup of water

    Confectioners’ sugar for dusting



    1. Position one rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Generously butter the bottoms and sides of two 8-inch cake pans.
    2. In a large bowl, mix together the flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, salt, and cloves. Add the nuts, fruits and candied orange peel, stirring to coat them evenly with the dry ingredients. Set aside.
    3. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine the sugar, honey and water. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar, 3 to 5 minutes. When the mixture comes to a boil, decrease the heat to low, attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan, and continue to boil, without stirring, until it reaches soft-ball stage (240 degrees on a candy thermometer), about 5 minutes longer. (Do not overcook the sugar and take it past the soft-ball stage; it will be sticky and too hard to spread.)
    4. Immediately remove the sugar mixture from the heat and pour it over the nut and fruit mixture. Working quickly, stir until well combined. It will be sticky and dense. Divide the mixture between the two pans, spread to the edges and smooth the top out with damp hands.
    5. Bake the cakes until puffed and dark golden brown, about 1 hour. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. When cooled, run a damp table knife around the edges and flip the cake onto a cutting board or plate. Dust the tops generously with confectioner’s sugar.

    Panforte, Pantone and a Toast to 2015  


    When a big box arrives on your porch from Merrycakes, well, that's a very merry day indeed. You see, Merrycakes is the kind of friend to call on a rainy day while she is carmelizing her weekly onions, or to find thousand dollar like-new Italian vacuums at the thrift store and know enough to spend the forty-five bucks on them. She knows her lilies and her Lily Pulitzers, and has been known to shake a lily-digit in your direction if you don't heed her sunscreen advice. She's like having Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda for a friend, with a dash of Amelie. She believes in cats, books and food! What could The Collective SweetPoppycakes do but ask her to join us for a guest post? Next week. Stay tuned.

    But you want me to open the box, don't you? You want to know about the vintage lavender apron with the buttery tulip on its pocket. You want to hear me say ric rac trim. You are hoping for a vegetarian cookbook the likes of which already has me marking my next three entries (& entrees!) for our sweet blog. Or the swanky swig Columbus, Ohio glass that will take you back to every old Stuckey's roadside stop of years ago. Those were all there. Merrycakes doesn't mess around when she packs up a treasure chest. But there was this tin full of sheer, sticky, spicy sin. The signature Merrycakes Panforte: a candified cake with flavors so interesting, that each bite delivers its own special dessert. There are few better ways to start the year. Even the picky, picky Mr. Poppycakes savored every bite.

    Since it is a new year, we like to track the new pantone color, which Tasters, just happens to be a kind of wine and might be my favorite color of the year yet. Let's toast to Marsala and maybe this is the year that we actually run our color-recipe contest. 



    Why not? An exercise in finding the comfort zone of your short story

    Sweetcakes is teaching a community education class at her local university and alma mater. The class is focused on writing, rather than workshopping, which I decided to do as a radical act, in that I firmly belive the hardest thing for many writers to do is to show up, put your ass in the chair, and write, write, write. So I am saying no to the workshop for now and focusing on writing exercises, and talking about writing, and having the students set their own goals. We talk each week about how they're meeting those goals, and chat about ways to keep the momentum going. I've been happy with the way the class has unfolded.

    The following exercise should help you figure out the best length for your story. Give it a whirl.

    Claire Guyton, in her essay “No, You do Not Have to Write A Novel” says “All I want to do in this world is write just one perfect short story.”

    It’s a noble goal, and what I love about that quote is this: it allows the short story to be the goal. So much of what we as writers hear is that a novel is the only way to pay the rent, to make it as a writer. Fortunately, we live in a time where the short story is receiving the attention it deserves as “the most courageous form” (Lorrie Moore).

    Still how do you know how long your short story should be?  It’s easy – try this experiment to determine your story’s comfort zone.


    Arnold, Bay, Carline, Dalyn, Effie, Grace, Hugh, Isabelle, Joe, Kristof, Leif, Marisol, Netta, Oliver, Prax, Quinn, Rhett, Sal, Ursula, Violet, Wanda, Xavier, Yerba, Zoe

    Towns (borrowed from this list)

    Beauty, KY, Best, TX, Bountiful, UT, Carefree, AZ, Celebration, FL, Friendly, WV, Happy Camp, CA, Happyland, CT, Ideal, GA, Lovely, KY, Luck Stop, KY, Magic City, ID, Paradise, MI, Smileyberg, KS, Success, MO, What Cheer, IA, Boring, OR, Dinkytown, MN, Eek, AK, Embarrass, WI, Flat, TX, Greasy, OK, Gripe, AZ, Hardscrabble, DE, Hazard, KY, Oddville, KY, Okay, OK, Ordinary, KY, Peculiar, MO, Sod, WV, Why, AZ


    Character seeks to harm someone, helps them instead; the worst moment just passed; soccer player bites ear; soldier returns home, his dog has been sold; invisible friend is missing; both people left, neither of them know it; boy wants girl who wants alien; both characters are wrong and lying; ignoring the warning sign; someone knows someone else’s secret; actor turns down most-coveted role because of illness; children go for a drive


    Pick one-two characters from the names list, one town, and one situation

    • Write a single-paragraph story. Make it complete.
    • Now write that story in six words.
    • Now rewrite that first paragraph as if you were setting the stage for a novel.
    • Now rewrite it as if you were writing a 10-page story

    Study the different approaches you took with each assignment. What works well, what doesn’t? What did you learn differently about the characters, the setting, the situation in the different openings/stories?  Did you pull the view out wider for the longer format? Did you choose words differently? How did you decide what not to include, what to leave out of the shorter formats? Did you change point of view? Shoud you? Which format feels to you that it has the most energy?

    Follow-on exercise:

    Pick one of the longer formats and keep working on it to complete a full longer story.


    Springing Back with the Intrepid Crocuses

    Greetings Tasters, It's April, five days into National Poetry Month from which I am usually scrambling away at a daily something.  Not this year. Mostly it involves honing what I have and tending to the new project that will ask form and brevity as its fuel. And the life I legally linked to Mr. Poppycakes and the life I have been trying to heal in the rescue-Persian cat given to Mr. Poppycakes one year to the day that I lost my last major rescue effort (and twelve-year dearest companion) Gladys, the last of my Tuscaloosa life.

    April brings extra challenges this year: work-related and the leftover weariness from a winter too long and severe.

    But the bulbs I planted last year are daring a glance out and the snowdrops and crocuses have been blooming and all of that makes me feel excited for summer.  During a walk by the reservoir, we found a tossed-away plywood ramp that when turned upside down has made a great new flowerbed. (I just painted it fern green and hyacinth blue for the interior.) When it's ready, I'll share it with all of you.

    Finally, Mr. Poppycakes and I are getting the bass boat ready to taste the thawed-out reservoir. It came with a name: My Highlander that seemed to be erased away to: My High. Yesterday, Mr. Poppycakes announced he was renaming the boat. Today, after volunteering we Menards-as-a-verb for a mailbox and some paint and stencils to spell-out: the Addie Pray.

    So what poetry will I bring to April? I have decided to try one form each week and to aim it towards the two projects I am trying to complete: The Guts and Glass Tooth of it is a chapbook of art and nature. Said like that, it sounds cheesy, but if you look at the work of Char Norman, Erick Swenson and Kit Vasey, you'll see how jagged can that geode-inspired title can get. I love jagged.  So for April, each week, I produce a poem in form. I am thinking to begin with The Golden Shovel as invented by Terrance Hayes in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks and rocked by LaWanda Walters in Goodness in Mississippi (I'll include the full text of her poem below.  I will be realistic in my summer goals, teach my minimester class, roadtrip to Florida to see my neice and nephew with little Ms. Addie Pray in tow and I will hit several new cities along the way. All of these are worthy goals, and none of them make me feel bad about not doing my annual poem or stanza a day. Stay tuned for what poetics I will manage. I am excited to report back: Lanternes and Golden Shovels in tow. 

    Goodness in Mississippi

    After Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,”
    with thanks to Terrance Hayes

    My friend said I wasn’t fat but she was, and we
    would go on that way, back and forth. She was my first real 

    friend, the kind who changes everything. Her mother was so cool,
    didn’t shave down there for the country club pool where we

    sat beside her. I saw a gleam of her secret, silver hair and was left
    dreaming of lime floating in a clear drink. I started saying hi at school

    and people smiled back. Smile first, my friend said, and we
    were a team. The cheerleaders who would always lurk

    by the field, showing off their muscled legs—of late
    I’d hardly noticed them. We talked about art, we

    attended science camp in Gulfport. That’s where her mother got struck
    by a car the next year. She must have thrown the new baby straight

    as a football to save her. Their family was on vacation, and we
    found out at Sunday School, waiting for the choir to sing.

    She was so good she comforted me. People saying, “It’s just a sin,”
    her mom like Snow White under glass, red lipstick, platinum hair we

    knew was genetic. You’ll still look young, I said. I think you’re thin. 
    We’d skip lunch, drink Sego (“good for your ego”). Last year I drank gin

    and called her ex. “She passed,” he drawled, like it was the weather. We
    tried powdered donuts with the Sego, sweated to the Beatles and jazz.

    Her whole life was beginning. We moved away from there one June,
    Mississippi tight-mouthed as a lid on fig preserves. And we—

    we white girls—knew nothing. The fire-bombed store, the owner who died
    for paying his friends’ poll taxes. Anorexia would be famous soon.

    (The Georgia Review, Winter 2013)



    10 Observations on Teaching Creative NonFiction

    Sweetcakes has been teaching a course in creative nonfiction through the nearby university’s lifelong learning program. It’s been rewarding, and fun, and a little tough, what with that extra-full-time job of mine. The students are top notch, interesting, and willing to challenge and be challenged, and good writers, the lot of them. I feel incredibly lucky, and though the class is short (just five weeks) I am satisfied with where we’ve been able to go and how much we’ve been able to cover.

    Here are my observations from the first three weeks of class:

    1. A good rule: Let the conversation do the teaching. Also, the more controversial topics spur the most intense conversations. Take the role of fact and truth in creative nonfiction. So many writers cover it well – Dani Shapiro, Ann Patchett in her convocation address to the Miami University of Ohio in 2005 (reprinted in “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage”), this conversation in Brevity’s blog, for example. Still, these students, tackled every complexity of the topic. I was so proud.
    2. Each group of students I’ve taught seems to carry its own tenor, mood. Especially in community eduation programs. My current class is quite ambitious and willing to tackle a lot of work in a short timeframe. This is quite satisfying.
    3. I’m negotiating the difference between workshop and write-shop. Haven’t found the line yet, and I suspect observation #2 will dictate the balance in each class I teach going forward.
    4. I’m having fun setting up each week’s lesson plan. Just as much, I look forward to the day when I repeat this class and already have the lessons set up, so it’s a little more efficient. I like efficiency.
    5. Next semester, I’ll be teaching a fiction class. See #4. Someday.
    6. I’ve found a great combo of working texts – for this class, I’m using Tell it Slant, 2nd Edition, by Brenda Miller and Susan Paola as the go-to source for navigating the elements of the form; The Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed for in-depth examples of each week’s topic; and The 3 a.m. Epiphany by Brian Kitely for exercises galore. Toss in some inspiration from Brevity Magazine, Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg and Creative Writing the Easy Way by Heather Hirschi, and I have a wealth of great resources.
    7. I have too little time to cover everything I’m excited to discuss about writing the fourth genre. Isn’t it always so?
    8. A tangent – it makes me incredibly sad/angry/disheartened when I think how the adjuncting of the English department has obliterated my (and so many talented writerteachers’) ability to earn a living doing this. Living within this world makes it easier to write, to find time to write, to support the community of writers, et al.  Instead, I currently have to love this like a hobby. It’s not enough. I am hungry for more.
    9. I hope I never get over the awe I feel when I hear students read their work aloud.
    10. More, please. More.