The Gift of Baking

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When you can eat anything, food often seems like a cheap show of affection. Before I got sick, my mom sent cookies for Christmas, my birthday and Valentine’s Day. It was nice, but not particularly moving, not when cookies were a regular treat easily made and easily indulged in. Then, a year and a half ago, I discovered that my body had developed an intolerance to wheat. Now making cookies for me involves buying unfamiliar expensive ingredients and trying out new unpredictable recipes. My mother hasn’t tried it. She still bakes for me, but she tends to select familiar recipes, opting for flourless chocolate cake over rice flour cookies. Her hesitancy to venture too far into the unknown is reasonable; wheat free baking often goes wrong. It’s part of what keeps people so tied to the same old wheat-based recipes even as more and more of us find ourselves no longer able to enjoy them.

 

With a restricted diet, food gifts take on new layers of meaning. When a friend made coconut flour pancakes for brunch I couldn’t stop thanking him. I almost cried when my friend Shannon presented me with half a dozen chocolate chip cookies to celebrate the completion of my thesis. I felt deeply loved when my mother baked my favorite spelt bread recipe when I visited this summer, allowing me to eat lunch with the rest of the family. The fact that it was overmixed and slightly burnt, barely registered; I was too delighted to be eating a sandwich.

 

it’s hard to imagine these days, but there was a time when gifts of food were the epitome of extravagance. Queen Elizabeth’s suitors were as likely to win her affections with marzipan as with jewels. Sugar and spices were once luxuries, things truly valued. Now, for most of us, a cake is easier to acquire than a carrot. But when I stopped eating wheat, I once again began to appreciate baked goods as treats, rare and decadent things. I know exactly how much time and effort goes into a loaf of bread, a pie crust, a cracker. To eat these things, I have to make them.

 

Most of the baked goods in my life now come from me. I make my own bread and cookies. It’s a time consuming hobby, but one I enjoy more than I would have imagined. On the weekends, instead of binge-watching TV, I press corn tortillas and bake sheets of homemade granola. I’ve gotten to know the different types of flour, discovered favorite new recipes. It’s taken time to learn how to work with spelt, einkorn, and gluten free flours. I often share the things I make, but there’s no denying that the baking is for me, that I do it mostly for my own pleasure.

 

My enjoyment of cooking used to come only from the product, my joy in the results of my labor. But wheat free baking is often unsuccessful, and through my tests and failures I’ve learned to love the process itself, to enjoy making food, to understand that doing so is a gift.

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Staying Inspired & Gluten Free Biscotti Two Ways

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I try to keep my life story full of adventures, however small. On Saturday, after my usual visit to the farmer’s market I convinced my friend Tara to venture into a tiny Mexican market I recently spotted up on 441, the main thoroughfare through Milledgeville. This town doesn’t have a lot of hidden gems, and my explorations have often led to disappointment, but not this time. The tiny Lucerito was surprisingly well stocked with dried chilies, avocado leaves, and chamomile flowers. It also had a decent selection of produce, including a box of prickly pear, a fruit I’ve never seen at the local Kroger. It had a cooler full of paletas (Mexican popsicles). Despite the fact that it was 11 am, I bought and immediately consumed my favorite flavor, vanilla studded with raisins.

The taste brought me back to Chicago, where I’d first experienced my favorite Mexican foods: authentic tacos, street corn, horchata. A decade ago when I lived in uptown, there was a woman who sold tamales and spicy hot chocolate outside of my L stop on the red line. Nothing tasted better while waiting on the platform in bitter winter weather. It’s just beginning to turn cold here, and this time of year I prefer chocolate spiked with cinnamon and cayenne to played-out pumpkin spice. 

The second batch of biscotti was inspired by a box of rosemary left over from making chicken salad, and a bag of freeze-dried strawberries I’d purchased on my last excursion to Trader Joes. It’s a lighter than the chocolate cookie, perfect for dunking in a cup of afternoon tea.

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Spiced Chocolate Pecan Biscotti (GF)

90 g buckwheat flour
35 g corn starch
120 g finely ground pecans
60 g unsweetened cocoa
zest of 2 oranges
1 1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t ginger
1/4 t cayenne pepper
2 T fresh orange juice
2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
55 g unsalted butter
125 g dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
100 g rough chopped pecans

Pour dry ingredients into a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Cream butter and sugar for 2 minutes, add eggs and blend one additional minute, add flour mixture and blend on low speed until completely combined. Stir in pecans. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Divide dough in half and shape into two long flat logs. Bake in a 300° oven for 40 minutes. Remove and cool for 1/2 hour, then slice into 1” thick sections. Bake again, still at 300°, for another 30 minutes, until dry and crisp.

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Strawberry Rosemary Millet Biscotti (GF, DF)

110 g millet flour
70 g almond flour
20 g cornstarch
1 tsp psyllium husk powder
1 tsp baking powder
1 T finely chopped fresh rosemary
100 g sugar
1 T coconut oil (melted)
1 t almond extract
2 large eggs
3/4 c uncooked quinoa
1 c rough chopped dried strawberries

Pour dry ingredients, including sugar into a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Melt coconut oil and pour over dry ingredients. Add almond extract and eggs and blend until completely combined. Stir in quinoa and strawberries. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Divide dough in half and shape into two long flat logs. Bake in a 300° oven for 40 minutes. Remove and cool for 1/2 hour, then slice into 1” thick sections, then bake for another 30 minutes at the same temperature, until crisp and golden.

 

Travel, Exploration, and Wanting What I Can’t Have

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Have you seen that psychological experiment with the kids and the marshmallows? It goes like this: a child is given a marshmallow and told that they can eat the marshmallow right then or, if they wait, they can have two marshmallows.

Few children can resist that first fluffy ball of sweetness, although many of them try. YouTube videos and internet sites have filmed replicas of the test showing children squishing, licking, and petting the sugary treats before sneaking their first nibble. These videos usually end with frightening claims about how the lack of self-control these children show will inhibit their potential for the rest of their lives. But they’re over-simplifying, showing only one part of the test. Later segments explore the effects of distracting activities like playing with toys, visual distance, and imagination on the choice to delay gratification. The experiment shows increased willpower when the marshmallow is covered with a bowl or when the children are told that they can imagine it’s not there.

Before IBS and its accompanying food intolerances, vacations were an opportunity for boundless culinary exploration. I loved trying new dishes and indulging in old favorites. Whatever rules or restrictions I usually followed where placed on hold. I ate whatever I wanted. I ate pancake breakfasts and late night French fries—ignoring the constipation that I experienced every time I travelled. I wouldn’t be held back. I was proud of my culinary exploration. (It never occurred to me how much of this supposed diversity relied on a single ingredient: wheat flour.)

Now that I’m on a more restricted diet, I still find plenty of delicious options, but somehow I still feel deprived, especially when traveling. Its illogical, feeling this way. I’m luckily not a celiac, and don’t have to worry about cross contamination. I can even eat ancient grains like einkorn and spelt in limited quantities. At home, my food options don’t seem limited, but away from home, it’s difficult. Not because there’s nothing I can eat, but because I’m surrounded by food I can’t eat, reminders that my choices are limited.

On a recent long-weekend trip to Atlanta I enjoyed succulent Indian lamb, a crisp-edged turkey burger on a gluten-free bun, pulled-pork enchiladas, creamy grits topped with shrimp and tomatoes, and even a gluten-free brownie. And yet, despite this decadent array, I found myself longing for flaky French pastries, chewy middle eastern flat breads, and pillowy Japanese steam buns. Calorie wise, my vacations are still an indulgence, and yet I often end up feeling hindered.

I’ve developed tricks to keep myself from partaking in forbidden foods: moving the bread basket further away from me on the table, not reading sections of a menu dedicated to sandwiches and pasta. I used to allow myself a single bite of pizza crust or dinner roll. But when you allow yourself one bite, it’s hard not to have two and while sometimes a small indulgence wouldn’t lead to symptoms, other times it would. Besides, I think it’s worse somehow to know exactly what I’m missing. Now, I abstain, unfailingly. And yet, I struggle. I watch my friends tearing into buttery garlic nan or my boyfriend slicing into crisp waffles and I hanker for what I can’t have. And yet, I have so much.

I know this, that my deprivation is laughable, minimal, negligible. I have never been malnourished, deprived of sustenance. But even my paltry restriction is illuminating. It gives me a tiny window into true longing and deprivation.

I am not strong enough to overcome my own unsatisfied wanting, at least not yet, but I do feel great admiration for those who resist more, have less. The shrimp and grits pictured above are from Cafe 458, a nonprofit which funds programs for the homeless, a setting that helped subvert my normal mental whining.

I may not always be able to feel the appreciation my privileged life deserves, but when I return home, back to the comforts of my own kitchen, I am truly grateful.

 

Plates, Garnishes, and Expectations

 

I started preparing food (I can hardly call it cooking) when I was in junior high. My mom was back in school finishing her bachelor’s degree and I was trying to repay the countless meals she’d made me. Upon return home after a morning full of classes, she was served her lunch: a sandwich cut into triangles, a glass of milk, dyed pale blue with food coloring, and canned peaches topped with sprinkles.

I didn’t know about balancing flavors or textures, but I understood eating with your eyes, that beautiful food is more inviting. Of course, my mother didn’t actually find turquoise milk or confetti-covered fruit appetizing. The colorings and toppings I chose were superfluous, what I would later learn was called irrelevant garnish.

A decade later I took my first cooking class at The Chopping Block in Chicago. It was a fun but humbling experience. I learned how to dissect a whole chicken, make aioli, and cook mussels. The instructor, Lisa, used a conspiratorial tone, that made it seem as if we were culinary experts instead of clueless novices.

“Don’t you just hate when parsley sprigs are just thrown on the plate?” she asked, her tone implying that she hardly needed to ask. “You should only garnish with parsley if there is parsley in the dish! A garnish should create anticipation.”

I thought of her words years later watching Grant Achatz (famed chef of Chicago restaurant Alinea) on the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table. He had a syringe full of heirloom tomato puree which he was piping into a mold shaped like a strawberry, complete with tiny achene, to create a food that defied expectation. The strawberry-made-of-tomato was a trick, a deception. It created false anticipation, surprise. In another dish, he served a piece of meat atop a pillow filled with fragrant steam, which gradually release the fragrance of a phantom ingredient, present only in smell.

Expectation is a funny thing. Since discovering my wheat intolerance I’ve grown to dislike going to parties where a snack table full of off-limits delicacies taunts me. I may feel perfectly satisfied before I arrive, but as soon as I see the crunchy pretzels and gooey chocolate chip cookies, I want them. For a while I can usually distract myself with conversation, ignoring the plates of the other guests, but eventually the temptation is too much and I go home. I know the snacks on offer at these parties are no better than the foods I have at home, but as forbidden fruit, they hold fetishistic appeal. I want, not just a bite of cheese bread, but the freedom to make my own unrestricted choice.

We eat with our eyes, which may be why the world’s best Chefs spend as much time devising perfectly arranged plates as they do creating harmonious flavors. On another episode of Chef’s Table, Brazilian chef Alex Atala coats ants in gold leaf before serving them individually on pillows of coconut meringue, cleverly transforming the humble ingredient from unpalatable to exotic.

I admire the beauty of a thoughtfully plated dish, but I’m not sure what to do with the edible flowers beloved by food bloggers, which are often bitter or vegetal, added to desserts and smoothie bowls only for aesthetics.

I recently saw an entire rose bud, thorns and all plopped in a bowl of chia pudding. The image was on Instagram, a dish made for looking at, but not for consuming. I know this, and the pale pink bud is beautiful, but seeing it makes me distrust the tastiness of the fruit puddle it floats in. If I must imagine the flavors of foods out of reach, then garnishes are indeed relevant to my conjuring.

Magical Muscadine Chia Seed Jam

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I’ve never been a big fan of chia seeds. I find the texture of chia pudding slimy and chia water gag-inducing. I’ve tried adding dried chia seeds to granola, but they turn slippery in milk or yogurt and often end up stuck between my teeth. I just don’t like their texture. But I have successfully used chia seeds as an egg replacement, and I’ve been wanting to try chia jam for quite some time.

Like most people with IBS, my digestion is at its most finicky in the mornings, which limits by breakfast choices rather severely. Yogurt and oatmeal are my go-to options. Both are fairly bland canvases that improve considerably with toppings and flavorings. I love toppings, like granola and jam, but they can add a lot of sugar. Chia jam is the perfect solution, giving a thick, jammy texture without adding sugar. And chia jam is fast! You can make it in less than 15 minutes.

Muscadine Chia Jam

Ingredients:

1 pint fresh muscadines

2 T. honey

1 T. chia seeds

1 t. lemon juice

Combine muscadines and honey in a small sauce pan. Bring to a boil and cook until grapes are softened and juice is a deep pink. Strain juice through a fine mesh strain, mashing pulp to extract as much liquid as possible. Stir in chia seeds and lemon juice, allow to set for 10 minutes, then refrigerate for at least an hour. Jam will week for 1 week in the fridge.

Surprising Harmony: Radish and Corn Salad

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This salad, like a good fairy tale romance, is a surprising union. The alliance of sweet corn and spicy radish is no less surprising or delightful than the marriage of human and beast, god and mortal, royal and peasant. Unlikely partners delight us by making the improbable possible. Sweet corn kernels and spicy radish slivers balance and contrast each other. Tart lime and fresh cayenne pepper add depth and harmony to the vegetable’s bright flavors.

I recently realized that in my excitement over gluten free challenges like bagels and macarons and I have seriously neglected anything resembling an actual meal. This dish is a little light to constitute dinner, but topped with a crumble of goat cheese and a handful of toasted pepitas it is easily elevated to an entrée. You can also scoop it up with tortilla chips, use it as a toping on tacos, or add it to a spicy Latin soup like pozole.

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Radish and Corn Salad

Ingredients:

4 c. fresh corn (from 4 ears)

10 small radishes, julienned

1/2 lime, zested and juiced

3 Tbsp. olive oil

1/4 tsp. chili powder

1/4 tsp. ground cumin

1 fresh purple cayenne (or serrano) thinly sliced

1 tsp. chopped, fresh oregano (preferable Zorba Red)

1 Tbsp. fresh cilantro leaves

Mix all ingredients and toss. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to allow flavors to meld. Enjoy!

Travel Mementos

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On vacation, I always try to imagine what it would be like to live in the place I am visiting. What neighborhood would I live in? Would this cafe be my go-to writing spot? Would the traffic get to me? I also like to bring home little reminders of the places I’ve traveled, souvenirs, though that word has so many negative connotations that I prefer to say mementos, small reminders of where I’ve been.

The things I take home rarely last long. They aren’t keepsakes. I don’t collect snow globes or t-shirts. I’m much more likely to buy a bag of local coffee, a jar of jam from the market, a bar of handmade soap, or possible a piece of local art.

Sometimes I keep these treasures, other times I share them with friends, but I love collecting on my trips. Later, when I make a cup of tea from a market in some other city, give a friend a trinket and tell her about the place it came from, or take a bite of well-traveled candy, I re-experience a tiny piece of my travels, like a sensory snapshot. When I’m back home and feeling restless, these keepsakes recall wonder and surprise, infusing my routine with bits of mystery.

Dreamy Mishaps: Pecan Milk and Praline Macarons

Sometimes recipes are inspired by memories, sometimes by cravings, and some come from eccentricities. These recipes started with a cheesecake. My boyfriend got me a food processor as a gift for our two-year anniversary and, to express my gratitude, I whipped up his favorite dessert, a classic New York style cheesecake, which left me with two unused egg whites. These egg whites nagged at me until I decided I would use them to make macaroons—I had already used my new gadget to make almond milk and dried the remaining meal to produce almond flour—but I couldn’t get excited about going classic. I wanted something more exotic than chocolate or vanilla, and the withered late season peaches and tough pre-season pears at the market weren’t inspiring me to make jam. Searching for regional inspiration, I recalled my recent first experience with pralines, a buttery, cookie-shaped candy, and like macarons, gluten free. Pralines are made with pecans, which grow in abundance here in Georgia.

After my delight at the sweet, creamy deliciousness of homemade almond milk, I decided to make pecan milk from my nuts before using the powdered remains in macaroon batter. (It gave me something to do while my egg whites aged.) The pecan milk has a richer, nuttier flavor that went beautifully with a drizzle of honey and a dash of nutmeg. I’ve also been enjoying it with Minimalist Baker‘s Pumpkin Maple Pecan Granola. I dried my pulverized pecans in the oven and the next day I was ready to make macarons.

At this point I should probably admit that I’ve never made macarons before. They are famously difficult. And it rained. Okay, enough excuses. These little guys are not the prettiest. They could have used another five minutes in the oven and I applied the filling when it was too hot, destroying the fragile foot that I swear showed up on about half of them. If I was a professional chef, I’d say that my macarons where a failure, but I’m a home baker and since everyone I fed these too—including my boyfriend who only likes two other desserts: warm brownies a la mode and cheesecake—loved them, in my book, that’s close enough to success to share.

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Pecan Milk

2 c. pecans
1/8th tsp. salt
5 c. filtered water, plus more for soaking

*You will need cheesecloth and a blender or food processor.

Cover pecans with water and let them sit overnight. Drain, rinse and combine with 5 c. water in a blender or food processor, blend on high for 30 sec. or until nuts are pulverized and liquid looks milky. Drain through 3-4 layers of cheesecloth, squeezing to release as much liquid as possible.

Spread the nut pulp in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and dry in oven on the lowest setting for 3 hours r so, until light and dry.

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Pecan Praline Macarons

(adapted from Sally’s Baking Addiction)

For the Macarons:

200g confectioners’ sugar (approx. 2 cups)
100g pulverized, dried pecans (approx.. 1 cup)
120g room temperature egg whites (around 3 large egg whites) left out at room             temperature for at least a few hours or up to 3 days
1/8 teaspoon salt
40g sifted granulated sugar or caster sugar (approx.. 3 Tbsp.)

For the Filling:

1/4 c. heavy whipping cream
3 Tbsp. butter
3/4 c. dark brown sugar
1/4 c. pulverized, dried pecans
3/4 c. powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

To make the macarons: Blend pecans and confectioners’ sugar in a food processor until well mixed and finely textured. Set aside. In a separate bowl, beat salt and egg whites slowly until stiff peaks form, then increase to high speed and add caster sugar, incorporating quickly. Do not over mix. Fold in vanilla. Sprinkle pecan mixture over egg whites and fold together gently until just incorporated. Allow mixture to rest while you prepare 2 double layered baking sheets topped with parchment paper, fit a piping bag with a round tip, and preheat oven to 325°. Pipe 2” mounds onto baking sheets, spacing about 1” apart. Rest at room temperature for 1 hour. Bake for 10-15 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes on baking sheet, then remove to rack to cool completely.

To make the filling: Set oven to 350°. Combine whipping cream, butter and brown sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisking frequently. Bring to a boil and continue boiling for 1 minute. Remove from heat and whisk in powdered sugar and vanilla. Remove nuts from oven and stir in. Allow sauce to cool for 15 minutes, beating frequently to prevent hardening.

To Assemble: When macarons are completely cooled, stick pairs together with filling. For best results, wait 1 full day to enjoy.

Food as Magic

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Photo: glowingcrystal.org

Sometimes it feels like everyone I know is sick. There are a staggering number of people walking around with illnesses. Most of these illnesses are chronic, and few of them have reliable medical cures.

What treatments are available tend to come with side effects almost as bad as the condition itself. And so, increasingly, people are looking for alternative solutions: herbs, supplements, and diets.

At first, taking your health into your own hands feels empowering. When I first began the Low FODMAP diet to treat my IBS-C I knew it would be tough, but I also had faith that it would allow me to live symptom free. For three months I followed the strange restriction, cutting out all the banned foods—wheat, milk, garlic, artichokes, and apples, just to name a few—the result was mixed. I generally felt slightly better than I had before the diet, but I was far from symptom free. In the reintroduction phase the results were even more confusing. At the end I had a short list of foods to avoid (wheat, onions) but otherwise saw little correlation between meals and symptoms.

Certainly diet and exercise are key factors in health, but eating well and staying active isn’t a magical cure. Believing that every illness can be fixed by “clean eating” makes sickness feel like a punishment. Correlating diet and illness too closely makes being sick the sufferer’s fault, a symptom of undisciplined living, penance for lack of self-control. Illness becomes an expression of moral failing.

When I have an IBS flare-up, I go to the internet, searching for some solution I haven’t tried yet. My symptoms, I learn could indicate SIBO, Candida, or leaky gut, so I order oregano oil, probiotics, peppermint oil, caprylic acid. Most of these supplements make me feel worse.

Eating, which was once a pleasure, now produces guilt and anxiety. I worry about how much fiber I’m getting, if I’m combining foods correctly, if I’m eating too much protein, if I’m making things better or worse.

Planning meals feels a bit like making a magic potion, as if combining the correct nutrients can release supernatural powers from the plants and animals I consume. The internet is full of stories of this sort of magic, people whose health problems disappeared as a result of the Whole 30, GAPS, or high-fiber diets. My personal experience is far less positive and yet, despite the glib advice, “listen to your body,” I feel like a failure when I do just that, paying attention to my worsening symptoms.

Sometimes in restaurants I watch other people eat with fascination, trying to remember what it was like to be able to eat anything, to freely choose between a salad and a pizza. I watch people eating, easily, thoughtlessly, choosing foods that would leave me doubled over in pain. If food is magic, why don’t they feel the curse?

It seems reasonable to think that if food can heal it can also damage, that if certain foods are miraculous than others are hexes. But if this is true, it certainly isn’t true for everyone. Many people eat the foods that pain me with no ill consequences. Knowing this, I try to allow myself the grace of its opposite, that if food cannot destroy all, it may not offer universal healing. I may not be able to cure my mysterious symptoms. Living with them is hard enough without believing that they indicate a personal failing.

Russian Princesses and the Female Neck

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I recently read Anna Karenina for the first time; I was charmed by the drama, the humor, and the strange formality of 19th century Russia. I was captivated by the inclusion of actual shops, performers, and historical details. It seems almost every woman in the book is a princess.  Tolstoy is generous with his descriptions, particularly of clothing. Anna is portrayed in simple but expensive ensembles that draw attention, not to themselves, but to her. Her necklines are given special attention since they alluringly frame her elegant neck and round white shoulders.

Necklines are important to women. Most of us have a preferred cut, a particularly flattering line. While Anna is usually described in open, plunging shapes, my own preferred neckline is high and swan-like. High-necked garments recall the fierceness of Elizabeth I, the irreverence of Andy Warhol, and a beatnik-era poetic sincerity. Covered up to my neck, I feel comfortable and safe, yet somehow mysterious. The high neck elongates and smooths, a gentle truss, encouraging proper posture. It is modest yet seductive.

I wear high-necked tops most frequently in the summer, as a sort of counterpoint to bare extremities and flowing shapes. The shape of a high neckline draws the eye up, toward collar bone, neck, and shoulders, areas of my body I rarely find fault with. Unlike my legs or my waist, this upper portion never seems to change, it’s stabile, sinewy structure seems more essential than the parts that shrink, swell, and sag.

I’ve heard the high neckline described as restrictive, but I find the confinement calming. Wrapped in fitted fabric I feel the security of a dog in a thunder blanket. As a young girl, on cold winter nights, I would lie on top of my blankets and my mother wrapped and tucked them into a snug bundle to keep out the cold.

I cannot sleep uncovered. I use a blanket even in the hottest weather. I’ve always enjoyed a certain amount of restriction, finding myself freer when their is a boundary to test. This, I believe is something I share with Anna, who enjoyed her affair only as long as she was restricted by the confines of marriage.