Wednesday, July 30, 2014

travelogue: portugal + pastéis (pastel) de nata

I can’t remember exactly when Matt started putting our trip together, but some time last year we decided we should visit Portugal and we would get there by cashing in all the frequent flier miles we had been squirreling away. It had been years since the two of us took a vacation alone - that is, without kids. Our plan began to hatch when we found out that my husband's cousin would be getting married in Manhattan in June. Since Otis and Theodore were invited to the celebration, it made sense for us to fly in, go to the wedding, let the boys spend quality time with their grandparents and extended family for 8 days, while Matt and I traveled to Lisbon.  Though the frequent-flier-non-direct route to Portugal seemed a little bit silly and a smidge inconvenient (NY à North Carolina à Philly à Lisbon), the multiple stops without the boys really didn’t seem like a big deal. Besides, I had so many magazines to catch up on and books to read too! It sounded like the perfect plan.  

But the timing of the trip wasn’t perfect at all. My father passed away in May, and while the shiva was over, I wasn’t sure what to do. Somewhere in my brain I thought that by going on this trip I wasn’t honoring his memory properly. I aired my concerns to my mother. She responded (with a strong Bronx accent) something like, “Batya, we’ve all been through a lot. Go with Matt. Have a blast. Enjoy each and every minute. Just go! Please.” My mother is known for being very direct and she never minces words. So I thought about it. We did need a change of venue. Maybe going on this pre-arranged trip would take my mind off things a bit…or at least give me a respite from the constant grief that I had been feeling. Matt had been through a lot too, and I decided my mom was right. So we went. And I’m so glad we did. 

Though there were constant reminders of my father on the trip, I was able to appreciate all the new things I was seeing. I felt inspired. We didn't rent a car, so we wandered the cobblestone streets of Lisbon for hours by foot. We went to the markets, the historic sites and we walked along the water. At night we made our way to the Festival of St. Antonio, a month long celebration that is particularly active in the oldest part of the city, the neighborhood of Alfama, which is also where we stayed. We took a 2 hour walking tour of the city and learned about azulejo, the ubiquitous blue tile paintings that tell the story of Lisbon’s denizens and her history. We arrived on the "early side" (10:30 pm!) at 100 maneiras and sat down for a 10-course tasting menu. It was modern-Portuguese meets molecular gastronomy, and yes they would accommodate vegetarians. That night, after dinner, we walked around for hours and took in all the architecture and the night-life. It felt great to be in the city. 

After two days in Lisbon, we headed west to wine country. When we arrived in Estremoz, a walled city with a magnificent castle, we were a bit surprised to discover that the hotel we booked (the Pousada) was in fact the city's castle! It was regal and filled with aristocratic antiques. There was a beautiful pool too, which served us well because the weather was really (really) warm. 

Our next stop was the coastal city of Cascais, which I mispronounced more times than I care to admit. We walked along the beach and toured the UNESCO World Heritage Sites at Sintra just a few miles away. We weren't able to find the pedestrian path that connects the historic city center to the castles, but being Coloradans (yup!) we decided to trek up the main road, dodging cars and scooters most of the way... all this in my less than optimal footwear. Because really, at this point, there isn't a mountain I feel I can't climb! 

When we got to the top of the mountain we toured the Palace of Pena, a 19th century architectural gem. It was incredible! And so was the Castelo dos Mouros (the Moorish Castle). Really a fortress, this castle dates back to the 8th century and was built by the Moors- Medieval Muslims who were predominantly of Arab and Berber descent and came from North Africa before settling in the Iberian Peninsula. They invaded Portugal in the early 700s, were eventually pushed back by Christian armies, but the Moors left, in addition to the fortress, a tremendous influence on Portuguese architecture, food and culture. 

The World Cup began when we were in Portugal, which was pretty exciting considering the nation's love affair with futbol. The night of the first game we ordered cocktails at an outdoor bar situated on a large pedestrian thoroughfare. We were sandwiched between a skipper who had sailed down the coast of Portugal with his nephew, and an Irish potato farmer (a young guy around 28) and his girlfriend. I'm not exactly sure how we ended up at an Irish pub at 3 in the morning discussing the Isle of Man and the Bee Gees, but it did happen…as these things do when one travels.

We ate, we drank, and then we ate some more. In other words, we had a time. 
This trip was the break we needed before getting back into the routine of regular life without someone we loved dearly. 

Thank you, Portugal. Obrigado! I hope to see you again some day (soon). 

Pasteis (or Pastel) de Nata is the most famous pastry in Portugal, and we had some excellent ones in Lisbon. One of my favorites came from a bakery called Pastelaria Orion. As we walked through the door the bakers were swapping out trays, so the pastries we ate were warm and just-out-of-the-oven. Top pasteis de nata can also be found in Belem (the most famous) and throughout Alfama. It's hard to find a bad custard tart in the city! And now, even 5 weeks after our trip, I'm still dreaming of them. Here's a recipe I liked.
Note: Homemade pasteis/pastel de nata probably won't have the char of the ones you'll find in bakeries or pictured below (from Pastelaria Orion). Unless that is, you have an oven that can get really hot. 

PORTUGUESE PASTEIS DE NATA (Courtesy of Leite's Culinary, David Leite, author of The New Portuguese Table)

Special equipment: a mini-muffin tin with 2-by 5/8 inch wells
Hands on time: 1 hour
Total time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Yield: Makes about 40
*Read the comments in the link. They are useful. 
For the dough
  2 cups minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  3/4 cup plus two tablespoons water
  16 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, stirred until smooth
For the custard
  3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  1 1/4 cups milk, divided
  1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
  1 cinnamon stick
  2/3 cup water
  1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  6 large egg yolks, whisked
  Powdered sugar

Make the dough
1. In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, mix the flour, salt, and water until a soft, pillowy dough forms that cleans the side of the bowl, about 30 seconds.
2. Generously flour a work surface and pat the dough into a 6-inch square using a pastry scraper as a guide. Flour the dough, cover with plastic wrap, and let it rest for 15 minutes.
3. Roll the dough into an 18-inch square. As you work, use the scraper to lift the dough to make sure the underside isn’t sticking.
4. Brush excess flour off the top, trim any uneven edges, and using a small offset spatula dot and then spread the left two-thirds of the dough with a little less than one-third of the butter to within 1 inch of the edge.
5. Neatly fold over the unbuttered right third of the dough (using the pastry scraper to loosen it if it sticks), brush off any excess flour, then fold over the left third. Starting from the top, pat down the packet with your hand to release air bubbles, then pinch the edges closed. Brush off any excess flour.
6. Turn the dough packet 90 degrees to the left so the fold is facing you. Lift the packet and flour the work surface. Once again roll out to an 18-inch square, then dot and spread the left two-thirds of the dough with one-third of the butter, and fold the dough as in steps 4 and 5.
7. For the last rolling, turn the packet 90 degrees to the left and roll out the dough to an 18-by-21-inch rectangle, with the shorter side facing you. Spread the remaining butter over the entire surface.
8. Using the spatula as an aid, lift the edge closest to you and roll the dough away from you into a tight log, brushing the excess flour from the underside as you go. Trim the ends and cut the log in half. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours or preferably overnight.
Make the custard
9. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour and 1/4 cup of the milk until smooth. Set aside.
10. Bring the sugar, cinnamon, and water to a boil in a small saucepan and cook until an instant-read thermometer registers 220°F (100°C). Do not stir.
11. Meanwhile, in another small saucepan, scald the remaining 1 cup milk. Whisk the hot milk into the flour mixture.
12. Remove the cinnamon stick then pour the sugar syrup in a thin stream into the hot milk-and-flour mixture, whisking briskly. Add the vanilla and stir for a minute until very warm but not hot. Whisk in the yolks, strain the mixture into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside.
Assemble and bake the pastries
13. Heat the oven to 550°F (290°C). Remove a pastry log from the refrigerator and roll it back and forth on a lightly floured surface until it’s about an inch in diameter and 16 inches long. Cut it into scant 3/4-inch pieces. Place a piece cut-side down in each well of a nonstick 12-cup mini-muffin pan (2-by-5/8-inch size). Allow the dough pieces to soften several minutes until pliable.
14. Have a small cup of water nearby. Dip your thumbs into the water, then straight down into the middle of the dough spiral. Flatten it against the bottom of the cup to a thickness of about 1/8 inch, then smooth the dough up the sides and create a raised lip about 1/8 inch above the pan. The pastry sides should be thinner than the bottom.
15. Fill each cup 3/4 full with the slightly warm custard. Bake the pasteis until the edges of the dough are frilled and brown, about 8 to 9 minutes.
16. Remove from the oven and allow the pasteis to cool a few minutes in the pan, then transfer to a rack and cool until just warm. Sprinkle the pasteis generously with powdered sugar, then cinnamon and serve. Repeat with the remaining pastry and custard. If you prefer, the components can be refrigerated up to three days. The pastry can be frozen up to three months.

Here's another one that I will try from The Portuguese Diner, Tia Maria
And another recipe.

Or I simply might just go back to Lisbon. Yeah, that sounds good! 
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Monday, July 14, 2014

all about my father (a eulogy)

From a relatively young age I understood the circle of life began with birth and ended with death. But no matter how many people I've lost along the way, nothing could really prepare me for the loss of my father. The deep sorrow that is mourning is impossible to shake. What makes his passing all the more challenging is the fact that he was the kindest, most patient, humble, mathematically brilliant, artistic, creative and thoughtful human beings I have ever met.

I spent many days in the hospital during the final weeks of my dad's life and there was a lot of time to reflect. I had time to really think about the kind of person my father was-- not just as my guardian and in the role as my dad, but who he was as a person. I thought about his life and the way he conducted himself

At his core he was incredibly kind, illustrated by the way he cared for his parents throughout their lives and, most importantly, when their health began to fail. He was patient and would spend hours educating thousands of students in the complex language of mathematics. He even took on the role as my math tutor as I was preparing for the SATs - a task, trust me. My father had a wry sense of humor and was relatively quiet (at least when being compared to some of the female members of our family), but whenever he spoke it was always with purpose and thought. He was a thinker and intellectual, but he would never label himself as those things because he was far too humble. My father lived by the adage, "if you can't say anything nice then say nothing at all." I kept coming back to that- I never heard my father utter an unkind word about anyone. Not ever. He didn't gossip or engage in petty attacks and he never complained… not even when his health declined as a result of Multiple Sclerosis. My father chose to ignore his illness for as long as possible. He lived with a medical condition that could have derailed his life, but my father carried on with dignity, poise and determination. He was thankful for every day of his life and he was good to the core.  

My dad was born in New York City and grew up in the Bronx. He went to the City College of New York, the crown jewel in the city's public university system. Somewhere along the way my father decided he wanted to be a teacher, an educator. We always knew that my father had a huge impact on the lives of his students because many of them lived in our community. There were random occurrences like the time my father and I were taking the A train and a man, who was sitting on the other side of the subway car, stared at us for a few minutes before standing up and announcing, "This man, Jay Stepelman, he changed my life." As about 50 onlookers watched the unfolding scene, the man ran up to my dad and started shaking his hand vigorously and then thanked him profusely before hopping out near 116th Street. 

In the days that followed my father's death, hundreds and hundreds of people made their way to the funeral, the burial and the shiva. The outpouring of support was incredible. Even more amazing were the letters from former students who spanned decades. Many of his students were now physicians (most of his doctors were his former students) at the top of their field or professors at MIT, UPenn, and Georgia Tech,while some were successful in other fields and businesses. All of the letters we received had the same overall theme: my father was kind, brilliant, a dedicated educator and he changed the lives of his students. As one former-student wrote, "He had high pedagogical values and a belief that even the young could reach his exacting standards." Another former-student wrote that my father, "was without question, the most inspiration and influential teacher I ever had. He changed the course of my life. He gave me a love of mathematics (and subsequently science) which remains with me today." This student went on to MIT, then Brown, and became a Mechanical Engineering Professor at Georgia Tech. He wrote, "I have had many students, written many papers, received awards and some degree of notoriety- none of which would have occurred had I not known Mr. Stepelman. He was far more than a great teacher- he care about his students and cared about mathematics in ways the produced extraordinary results…" 

My father went on to publish several books, including Milestones in Geometry and Teaching Secondary Mathematics. He was also a painter and he loved classical music. He enjoyed spending time in Upstate New York, where we had a country home in the Catskills Mountains. I've been combing through old photos my mother sent me and I'm struck by just how cool my dad was…he loved gathering with friends, rowing his boat and cooking over the grill. 

The end of my father's life wasn't easy. He spent over 325 days in hospitals and rehab from September 2012 till his death in May. There were beeping machines, ICUs, physical therapy sessions, pills to take, and every time he was released to go home he would eventually return to the hospital weaker than the previous time. It was a vicious cycle. Throughout all of this, my mother was by his side. One Monday, as I was checking in at security desk of NY Presbyterian Hospital (Columbia), the man filling out the information card told me, "Your mother is incredibly strong. I want you to know that she has never missed a day. Not a single day. She's always visiting him." Considering the length of my father's hospitalizations I thought that was incredible. It also speaks to my mother's dedication for her partner of over 40 years.  This loss has been very hard on her. 

My dad isn't suffering anymore and so there is a small bit of relief that he's not in pain. But for selfish reasons I wish he was still here. I wish I could say hello to him again. I wish I could ask him how he was doing (his response was always, "Thank God."). I wish he could see Otis and Theodore grow up and be part of their lives. I wish I could hear his voice again. It breaks my heart that I can't. I hate death in all its permanence and finality. We are all struggling with this loss. But I remind myself to take comfort in all the good memories. Memories of my dad painting a giant mural in our basement, of his famous matzo brei, of pumpkin carving, of crafting Purim costumes, of building snowmen and sledding after storms. I think of the kindness he gave to his parents during their final years, of the book parties that celebrated his mathematical publications, of our summers spent in Upstate New York, of the joy he felt during every milestone in my life including my graduation from college and then law school, my admission to the Washington Bar, and my marriage. He was there for the birth of both my children, and I know that is all very special…

I am trying to be thankful for all the good things. I am so lucky that I had a father like mine. He was so good and so kind. And in his final days we were all with him. He was never alone, not for a moment. He thanked my brother and me for being wonderful children and we thanked him for being a wonderful father. We all took turns manning the fort (his room) and engaged him in conversation when he was not sleeping, but towards the end he slept a lot. I had the overnight shift on his penultimate night and my brother was with him during his final moments on Earth. 

On Memorial Day, May 26th, my mother and I were getting ready to go back to the hospital when the phone rang. It was my brother. My mother picked up and I heard her scream. I knew what had happened. It was the saddest moment of our lives.

My father's legacy includes a long list of people who he helped, people whom attribute their accomplishments to him. He left a close-knit family that includes my mother, me, my brother, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, 8 grandchildren and an extended family. We loved him and we miss him. There aren't any words that can adequately capture the amount of gratitude I feel towards my father for loving me unconditionally (even through my teenage years), and for being a constant source of kindness and inspiration. I won the lottery when it comes to dads. 

I hope to pass a lot of Grandpa Jay on to Otis and Theodore. My boys are too young to fully comprehend what has transpired over the past few months. But both Otis and Theodore know that their mom is sad and that Grandpa Jay is no longer with us in a physical sense. When I told Otis that Grandpa Jay died he said, "Don't be sad. He's in the sky taking Omar for a walk…"- a visual that is incredible to me because my father was wheelchair-bound and Omar, our Rottweiler of 14 years, could no longer walk towards the end of his life. I don't have answers to give my boys, or even myself, when they ask where Grandpa Jay is... but I like to think that wherever he is, he is watching over us.


  1. What a beautiful tribute to your father, Batya. So sorry to hear of your family's loss. He sounds like a spectacular human being! Find comfort in the memories.
    1. Thank you so much, Johanna. Good memories help a lot.
  2. Such a beautiful and sweet essay about your father. Love the pictures. I was in tears by the end and so inspired to be more kind. The older I get the more I am struck by how kindness, more than anything else, seems to stay on in people's memories. Your father sounds like an amazing human being and you are definitely so lucky to have had him as your dad. I am so sorry for your loss. And oh your mother......the loss of a life-companion of 40 years, I can't even imagine it. I hope that with time you will find comfort in the presence of his spirit in and around you always.
    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Pia. My mother is coping the best she can- we will fly to see her in August and keep her company. Your comment reminded me of something I once read-- how more than anything, what the author regrets the most in life are failures of kindness. It's what matters most; my father knew that and lived it. Thank you again for your heartfelt wishes.
  3. Losses like these are the hardest in life. He sounds like the kind of person this world could use more of and you lucked out with fathers! I hope you will find comfort in your family and those cute boys-- I bet he loved them so much!
    1. Thank you. He loved them so...
  4. I'm so sorry to hear this Batya! He sounds like such a special person--and I can't even imagine how difficult this time must be for you. My thoughts are with you and your family! xx
    1. Thank you so much, Laura. He was really special :)
  5. I am so sorry for your loss. Blessing to you all.
    1. Thanks for your comment (and thanks posting because I'm happy to have discovered your blog). I appreciate the kind thoughts...
  6. Your father was loved and is now missed- I am sure he is at peace. What a beautiful way to memorialize him. I hope you find comfort in the memories. Sending you love. xo
    1. Thank you, Patricia. We are finding comfort in the memories. And as the emails continue to come in from across the world, I'm discovering new things about my father all the time. Thanks for the comment and the love :)
  7. The loss of a parent is difficult on, many levels. Like peeling the layers of an onion. They were our first-fan club. Cherish the memories and be grateful he was a man that understood the importance of being a father to his children.
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