Tuesday, January 3, 2012


I have always been an avid reader and a lover of words...not just printed chains of words as they circuitously wend their way into becoming novels and newspaper articles, but WORDS. Their place in grammar, derivation, pronunciation...all the little bits of pre-info that dictionaries used to provide (wait, they still do that) before you actually got to the meat and potatoes definition. It would be deceitful of me not to disclose the fact that in a previous incarnation I was a Crossword Puzzle Editor, so at one time it was really my job to know all that pre-info stuff--in addition to the definitions, of course. But I honestly do relish taking, just for the heck of it, a word and in a very detective-like way, researching its etymology to find out how it got from there to here. It is very much like a game, that is, a puzzle. (Can you say, "Geek?")
So yes, words were my life. They still are, but in a very different way. We in the word-puzzle biz were a very interesting bunch. The wealth of knowledge we had up in our heads was a conglomeration of vocabulary--foreign and otherwise (yes, we're good at playing that word game), trivia (and that word game), and more minutiae than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately, the only people who appreciated that kind of eclecticism were the people we worked with! A little cliquey, a little quirky... A LOT quirky, a little brilliant, a little immature. 

Dell Crossword SpecialThis gaiety took place in the Crosswords Department of a major publishing house, and while we most definitely were a money-making part of the company, I know that we were looked upon by the book editors and publicists as being an ancillary part.  ("Freaks and geeks.") At times it would bother me, but for the most part, we had the rest of them beat and they didn’t even know it. Where else could you get a group of young, just out of college, editors laughing hysterically about some crazy word or analyzing a letter we received questioning our integrity because someone found an error pertaining to Iceland or Uzbekistan in a puzzle? (We did take those letters seriously...yes we did!)
When I started, the head of the department was a woman who had been there a long, long time.  When she held court in her office--which she did less and less as her health (and mind) began to fail, the atmosphere was rather Dickensian. A meeting with her--always behind closed doors, was a test of patience and fortitude. You really had to mentally prepare for these meetings where she would ask terse questions, going page by page through the magazine you had just completed editing. There was never any small talk, and very rarely was a kind word spoken. Any fly on the wall would be witness to her murmuring, long lapses of silence, and lots of throat clearing. One of the only good things I remember about that period was that she would come in late, take a long (primarily liquid) lunch, and leave early. I was often told that in her heyday this woman was quite revered, and much of the success and stellar reputation of the department could be attributed to her. Sad as it sounds, things picked up dramatically once she was gone.
The second-in-command was also an old-school type, but she had more of an Auntie Mame flair. She would lumber in (mostly on time), wig and makeup askew. She had a great sense of humor and could often be heard (her office door was always open) on the phone laughing in a Phyllis Diller sort of way (uh hah, hah, hah--uh hah, hah, hah). RM was the antithesis of her predecessor--she loved gossip and chitchatting. And she could easily be distracted. It was during this period that I spent much of my time hiding amongst the aisles of books in the company library, feigning to be working on some research or fact-checking project. What I was actually doing was perusing the hundreds of cookbooks on hand. I would often check some out--I know the librarians were questioning just how many food-related puzzles we were creating upstairs--and then get down to the business of hand copying (no Internet back then, remember) my favorite recipes. To make this project even more labor-intensive, I would then go home and copy these recipes on index cards and save them in a card file box.
Just before I left the company to relocate (yes, I’ve done that before) to the West Coast, and begin my life as a freelancer, the leadership changed hands once again. Now at last we were entering the twentieth century and working in real time.
Each year during the week preceding Christmas, the department had a pot luck luncheon. I remember many wonderful dishes making their way to those luncheons, one in particular was a “Chocolate Zucchini Cake” taken from a Maida Heatter cookbook. Back in the 80s, just before the food world exploded with popularity, none of us had ever thought to create something sweet using zucchini. The cake was moist and chocolaty--more like a brownie than a cake. 
The most memorable, or should I say “forgettable” dish I brought to the fair was something my family called “shlishkes,” or potato dumplings. These gnocchi cousins were a favorite of mine--when my mom made them. Like airy pillows of potato dough rolled in sugared breadcrumbs, hers were a treat. Mine, as Borat would say, “not so much.” The potato starch was on auto pilot with these guys and by the time I got to work, “they” had become “it,” as in one big glutenous mess. I have since learned how to perfect the making of those puppies, but just to play it safe I’ve chosen a different treat with which to honor all the wonderful characters I worked with back then. Black And White Cookies do not only appropriately illustrate my days as a “cruceverbalist” (go look it up!), but they also take me back to my childhood in New York City. The classic cookie that’s more like a little cake...a “cakie” glazed with both a vanilla and a chocolate topping. The yin and yang. You can cut it down the middle and eat the chocolate half first (just as I used to do), or cut it from side to side to get a taste of both icings together. (Sorry no baking today, so this photo is from Zabar's. My unbroken right hand still cannot get the hang of what my broken left hand can do.)
Zabar's Mini Black and White Cookies (Kosher) - 11oz
(makes about 15 large cookies—22 medium-sized cookies)
1 ¾ cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 eggs
1 cup milk
½ tsp. vanilla extract
¼ tsp. lemon extract
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
2 ½ cups cake flour
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
4 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/3 cup boiling water
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Make cookies: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter. Add sugar and lemon peel and beat until light and fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time, and mix until smooth. Add milk and lemon and vanilla extracts.
Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir until mixed. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in thirds, stirring well to combine after each addition.  Using a large soup spoon or a 2-tablespoon measuring spoon, drop two spoonfuls of batter 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Smooth out the batter “blobs” with the back of the spoon. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until the bottoms begin to turn golden. Allow to cool completely.
Make icing: Place confectioners’ sugar in a large bowl. Add enough boiling water until mixture is thick and spreadable. (Add less than the indicated amount initially, and add more if necessary.)
Remove half of the frosting to the top of a double boiler set over simmering water.  Add the chocolate.  Warm mixture until chocolate is melted and smooth.  Remove from heat.
With a pastry brush or small offset spatula, coat half of each cookie with white icing, and the other half with the chocolate icing.  Allow to harden at least 30 minutes.


  1. What fun to read! I well remember my first task there -- which I'm sure you must have had to do as well -- going through Word Search puzzles looking for accidental inappropriate letter combinations. You would often find a "VD" and an "ASS" (often part of a larger word). I remember being so excited when I found an "FK." Best to you, Elyse

  2. Elyse! So many memories that I could have written a book! And you definitely would have been in it since we shared an "office suite" for a while. Good to hear from you!