Growing up, I spent a lot of time foraging in the woods. When the neighborhood girls and I weren’t in the midst of an epic hissy fit, or wreaking revenge on each other, we were building forts in the forest. These endeavors constitute some of my most vivid girlhood memories, especially the construction of the kitchen portion of the fort. I was forever concocting a “salad” of leaves, grasses and pine cone croutons. Whether this boded well or ill for the future of my cooking, I can’t say. I do know that it planted in me an abiding love for greenery, on my plate and around me. And all that scrounging around for ingredients was the beginning of a life of inventive salad-making, with or without lettuce.
It’s true: you don’t need lettuce to make a salad. If you are from the Midwest, you know this, my friend Jana informs me, because you have been making salads for generations with cool whip, Snickers bars and marshmallows. The thought of that concoction sends me running for pine cone croutons and cedar frond frisee. Recently, I have reunited with an old favorite staple of the lettuceless salad: celery. Ah, the discreet charms of this oft maligned plant!
When my girls were wee, they would watch Olivia, a whimsical children’s program based on the adorable Ian Falconer books. Olivia’s mom is one of my mothering role models (I get most of mine from children’s literature because the mothers who aren’t dead of a mysterious wasting disease are often pretty good). She has three children and runs an event planning/catering business. She stands in her kitchen, trotters jutting out beneath her sensible pencil skirt, reassuring a client that yes, there will be gluten free options at the bar mitzvah. Erstwhile her piglets run amok through the house, and she remains the picture of everlasting maternal calm.
What does this have to do with celery? Stay with me. Another character I enjoyed was Olivia’s monotone best friend, Julian with his ever present ipod. When Olivia asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Julian replies, “I’m just trying to get through the day.” I hear you. Julian was assigned to be celery in the school play and his song went, “Look at me, I’m Cel-er-y. I’m tall and green and crunchy.” Heck yes. Surely there is no need for a more ringing endorsement of a vegetable than that?
I love celery, and the stalks and leaves serve perfectly as the base for a crunchy (tall and green too) salad. My rendition of this dish was inspired by a salad recipe from Seattle blogger and restaurateur, Molly Wizenberg. You can add pasta to this and call it dinner. Feel free to call it dinner if it gets you full as is, but my cavernous stomach refuses to fill up without some pasta. It has to be whole wheat though; white flour is a younger woman’s game.
Everytime my youngest comes to me with pickings from the yard, nestled together in a bucket of dubious cleanliness and asks, “Are these all edible?” I see a future saladmistress in the making.
Easy Salad Even Piglets Might Like
One big head of celery, leaves included, sliced
One jar of artichoke hearts, cut in half (preferably grilled and marinated by Trader Joe’s, of course)
One can of garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
a lot of chopped parsley (add alternate or additional herbs if you prefer)
chopped chives (optional)
olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
lemon juice to taste
Isn’t that spectacular? On our recent vacation, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to the Molokini crater aboard the Four Winds catamaran. Like so much of family life, this excursion was a mixed bag. I am not one to book a tour, being a cheapskate and a crowdshunner, but I was fascinated by the partially submerged crater out there like an enormous toenail clipping. I doubt I will ever see water so blue again. It hurt my eyes, and almost made me tearful; I can’t describe the emotion it called up. It was just so utterly… blue (like no blue I ever see again will be blue, it will be something else). The water was choppy, making my two skittish daughters, who fear most modes of transport, even more edgy and weepy, (imagine traveling with a cat who has been caught up in a funnel cloud, and a seizure-prone rabbit).
The snorkeling felt frenetic, though the water was clear. I was grateful for the crystalline view of flippers and bronzed gluteal globes in those buttless swimsuits that threaten to be perpetually in style, before either of these items whacked me in the head underwater. But still, it was worth it, since I was never going to get there any other way. Plus get this: my husband went down the kid slide on the back of the boat. Not noteworthy in and of itself, but he let out a whoop in an effort to show off for the nearby, vomiting children. An Australian woman in the water said, “Now I don’t feel so bad about my girly scream, mate.” You can’t put a price on that.
Did I mention there was an open bar on the Four Winds? Okay, not as thrilling as it sounds, because Coors in the morning is something I will only take part in under duress or post-apocalyptically. Instead, I had about seven of the most delightful plain seltzers mixed with ginger puree, poured for me by Dave, a charming lad of indeterminate age, who was so easygoing he defined the island ethos. I insisted Dave name the drink, and after some collaborating, we pronounced it a Four Winds Gingertini (not the name of a bikini for a redhead, or a nickname for my youngest daughter, though perhaps it should be). At home I add lime, and I am thinking of trying it with kaffir lime leaves and a drop of coconut extract. If you are going to start drinking before lunch, best to stick to this refreshing mocktail.
The boat trip back to the marina included a surprise encounter with two dolphins, the first we have ever seen in the wild and the first ever, period, for my daughters.* This was moving and gratifying, but there’s more! We witnessed what must have been the final trio of mother, baby and “male escort,” humpback whales, preparing to depart for Alaska. The boat idled as we watched the baby learn to flip its tail around and be both adorable and awe-inspiring in the way that only a massive marine mammal can be. Again, a first. If we are lucky, not our last, but I don’t want to get greedy. The male escort will see them back to Alaska, auditioning for the role of next season’s mate. It’s not a bad system, since you don’t really know someone until you travel with them. I wished him luck, and nerves of steel, since he would be traveling with an adolescent. Smooth travels, my enormous friend.
*We were pleased to learn on our visit to the Maui Ocean Center, that the county of Maui does not allow dolphins, porpoises, or whales to be held in captivity. May the rest of the world follow suit. Are we beginning to realize that inspiring, intelligent animals were not put on earth to alleviate our perpetual boredom? Should we encounter each other in their habitat, we can count ourselves blessed by the chance meeting. If we never do, well then, they haven’t missed much.
I recently returned from Maui, my first trip back to that island since my first glimpse, 35 years ago. I stepped off the plane as an adolescent, into the sweetness of plumeria on the soft air, and pronounced it (as so many have before and since) “paradise.” That was the early 80’s, when Maui was in its surge of popularity and growth. “Here Today, Gone to Maui,” was the motto on the t-shirts and minds of everyone over 18 (the former legal drinking age in the islands). It wasn’t as packed, cheek by sandy, sweaty jowl, with tourists and poorly planned development as it is in its current (still jaw-dropping, yet…) state of paradise partially lost. Though even if it had been, it would have still seemed like Eden to a girl from south Tacoma.
It’s a testament to the stunning beauty of Hawaii that I remember that trip so fondly. In truth, I got sunburned, soundly, on the first day. I was in such whimpering agony for the rest of the trip that anytime another person, an article of clothing, or my 1982 asymmetrical pony tail so much as brushed my skin, I felt an electric nervous jolt followed by itching of biblical proportions. And yet, I have spent every day of the ensuing 35 years longing to be there again. I now use sunscreen, lots, though still too little, too late, I am afraid.
I was so mesmerized by the plumeria trees on that long ago trip, that I bought a perfume in the airport right before departure, using it sparingly for years until it turned brown and grainy in the bottle. I have never found that same scent again, despite desperate and determined sniffing of every perfume available in airport gift shops.
Though the beaches are splendid, and the swimming transcendent, dining can be a mundane, yet pricey, experience on Maui. I had a few meals I could have done without, but I will say that Coconuts restaurant makes a delicious fish taco with mango salsa. But it was the frozen desserts, not the main courses, that were the star of the trip.
I received an admonition from a transplanted Mauian residing in Olympia, to go to Ululani’s Shave Ice. I had never tried shave ice before since I assumed it was a glorified, overpriced snow cone. The only snow cone I ever bought, was knocked from my hand by a passerby when I was 11 and, not being a particularly resilient child, I never ordered another. Ululani’s sign states they serve it up with “Alohatude,” (gratitude with the spirit of Aloha) and the young employees did not disappoint. For the remainder of the trip, I found ample opportunity to inquire of my offspring, “Hey! Where’s your Alohatude?” Surprisingly, this was not received in a spirit of Aloha(tude).
At Ululani’s we discovered Roselani’s ice cream. This delicious treat is produced on Maui and can be deposited in the bottom of your shave ice so you get creaminess and iciness in every bite. Allow me to recommend these flavors: coconut-pineapple and mango cream.
We were thrilled to our sandy toes to discover Maui Gelato near our condominium. They also served Roselani’s, along with their own gelato. I am mad for pistachio anything, and their’s was fantastic. Though I was skeptical at first, since it wasn’t the signature green I have come to expect (obviously, the green is dye, but it may be the one time I support its use). I was surprised since they clearly had a free hand with the artificial colorings in their other flavors (local doesn’t mean natural, after all). But the caramel colored (perhaps it was actually dyed that color) pistachio was excellent.
I was playing fast and loose with my gelato intake for the first time since my trip to Europe at age 22 when I first encountered the stuff. I was rising, somewhat ponderously, from the table, claiming to the girls that I was going to just have another, when my oldest said with the sanctimony unique to preteens, “Well, I certainly am not.” My youngest turned on her and said, urgently, “Don’t try to be a role model! I like the way mom is on vacation!” It’s true, I am easy to be with when I know I will be in the sun and ocean every day, even with my flesh slightly stuffed into my two-piece as a result of relaxed standards. After all, in the absence of debilitating sunburns, they needed something to remember the trip by: “Remember that time we got to eat tons of gelato and mom got a stomach ache and looked embarrassing in her swimsuit? Ya, that was fun.”
On a calm, made-to-order morning on Keawakapu Beach, I watched my daughters caper around in the surf, get bowled over and disappear in froth. They bubbled up, grinning, every tooth visible, their faces partially covered in tentacles of soaked hair. I love the ocean – I live for it – but perhaps no bliss I experience can compare to the intensity, the purity, of their youthful exuberance. For just a moment it came to me, the fragrance reaching me over the aerosol sunscreen, sizzling Wisconsin shoulders and wafts of Maui Wowie. There is was: plumeria, the scent of paradise regained.
The weather* (don’t ask me to describe it, because I am running out of synonyms for abysmal) has given me a burning hot case of Spring fever. Are you similarly afflicted with the urge to strip down to your pallid flesh and leap, starkers, into a body of water? Well, thankfully, it was time for my annual jaunt with my girlfriend, Lori. This year, it was back to Oregon, but no urban restaurant hopping this time. We were headed into the woods, to Breitenbush Hot Springs, or, as my husband calls it: naked camp.
It’s so good to get away, I thought, as we wound our way into the snowy Williamette National Forest. What?…Wait a minute – snow? Where’s Spring? I had pictured myself skipping along the hiking trails, observing the budding new foliage while birds landed on my finger like in Cinderella. But Persephone can’t be rushed, apparently. The goddess of Springtime was still huddled up in water-repellent gore-tex.
So instead, I found myself watching a deer, her bored companion beside her, standing chest deep in the snow, masticating heaven knows what flora, for a quarter of an hour without taking another bite of anything. I became transfixed, and also sympathetic to her girlfriend, who reminded me of my friends/husband who have had to sit by patiently while I consume fibrous, labor-intensive salads. What was this dogged ungulate working over, pine cones? Pebbles? How, you may wonder, given my negligible attention span, was I able to observe this little tableau with the attentiveness of a Chinese filmmaker? Well, without the distraction of cell and internet service, a person can become obsessively attuned to nature. I was actually in Qi Gong class at the time, starring out the window while beaming emerald green light to my liver with an invisible ball of energy. Don’t knock it, my liver has never felt better. I figured if I was going to be at an unapologetically – and rather touchingly, I admit – hippie enclave, then I better start my morning with Qi Gong. Why do it if you aren’t going to do it?
I gave in, a bit, to the lingering winter, and had a moment in the pool at the edge of the woods, with snow falling softly on my face, that I thought maybe this is what it’s like to be in Japan. I was finally, blissfully unclad, and no one was around. I am a devoted nudist, (partly because I find it difficult to coordinate outfits) but I am also an introvert, so I don’t need company while I am bare. It was all so lovely. Then, the next day I awoke to seven fresh inches of snowfall and a car that looked like an enormous snow cone. I was, as my companion will grimly concur, a little grumpy.
But allow me to rhapsodize about the food at Breitenbush. It’s vegetarian, organic, plentiful, and fully deserving of its sumptuous reputation. Thrice daily I waited, practically panting, for the sound of the bell. At one point, I was in yoga, breathing through my heels, when it gonged. I was about to jump through a window and land on the deer, when the teacher said in a soothing-to-crazy-people voice, “I forgot to mention we go a few minutes over time in this class. We can eat any time, but we can’t all come together like this any time can we?” Is she really asking me that? Eat anytime? Who’s the crazy one here? When we did our final release of energy – or something – she said, “Here we are, relaxed, refreshed and -” “Hungry,” I interjected, pathetically. You should have seen me hightail it to the dining hall for breakfast where I found dates to put on on my oatmeal along with a two-cheese frittata! HOW DID THEY KNOW??
One of the breakfast cooks, Jamel, said, “I put a lot of love into the food, so it’s so great when people notice.” Then she hugged me. She definitely put love into that frittata, because if two cheddars doesn’t equal love then I don’t know love. Food made with love will get me out of bed in the morning and yes, I will walk through the snow for it, and even do pre-breakfast yoga. This is what drives me on. Martin Luther said nothing is accomplished in this world without hope (the hope of breakfast, for instance, or Spring). But nothing – NOTHING – worthwhile is accomplished in the kitchen, without love.
*This was the coldest winter since 1985, the wettest February on record, and rainfall from November to mid-March exceeded that normally received in an entire year.
Let’s face it, the only advantage to being sick is the grousing you get to do. That, and the free pass to binge-watch This is Us (or as I call it: This is Handsome – are the men on that show for real?). My youngest and I had the flu at the same time and spent three codependent days in a loop of starring at the ceiling, brushing her dolls’ hair, and dozing off. I really don’t know if she has gone to school at all in the last month. She isn’t here now, so I think she went back. I had every possible symptom and suffered immeasurably and – wait! There is another benefit to being sick: boring people to anguished tears by describing your experience!
I got the virus, my husband got it, my friends got it, my mom and sister got it, and then, once the plague cycled through, everyone got a secondary ailment. I landed a lingering case of the blues (right before a second – but shorter – round of the virus).
I get horribly morose when I’m ill. On one of my low days, I went on a quest for some kombucha. (I transitioned directly from ridiculing kombucha drinkers to being a kombucha drinker. Life is funny). I walked into Ralph’s Thriftway when, for the first time in my life, an automatic door shut, firmly, on me. I was pressed for a moment between the squeezing panels until they registered my feeble resistance and retracted. It was as I had feared: I had ceased to be. Illness had leeched away my essence and even the automatic doors no longer recognized my personhood. This is how I get when I am sick. It’s why marriage vows used to include “in sickness and in health,” before everyone realized the “in sickness” portion was too tall an order.
My mom and sister both drop about 7 pounds apiece when they are sick. They emerge, weakened but winnowed, looking like Marlene Dietrich. They complain to me about it, and I listen, feigning sympathy over the phone while I munch, munch, munch on my third bowl of honey coconut oil popcorn. Loss of appetite? Maybe someday when I am ready to kiss this cruel world goodbye, but for now, illness doesn’t dampen my desire for meals. Although it may prevent me from being energetic enough to cook them.
I recently discovered the subdued charms of miso soup. My phone autocorrects this to “misogynist soup,” but I am trying to ignore that and assume it isn’t part of the larger cultural zietgeist. I don’t feel justified in offering a recipe for this, since any carton of miso will tell you exactly what to do (mix with warm chicken broth and bonito flakes, add scallions, tofu, etc) but I do want to recommend it, in case you are one of the remaining ill in Olympia.
I made it a couple times recently and at my daughter’s urging, added rice noodles. It’s convenient to have a container of the paste in the fridge so you can make a quick cup up anytime you are feeling sick/morose. And if you use Better than Bouillon, which comes in several varieties, then you don’t have to open a whole carton of broth.
Drink a cup, and contemplate just how horribly I suffered during this gruesome cold and flu season. And if you want to call, I will be happy to tell you all about it.
After receiving multiple requests for a copy of the Scholastic Gold Key award-winning story by blooming young author Phoebe C., I have decided to post it here. I have made a poor showing on my blog lately so someone has to write something.
Just a word: I like to refer to myself as Mother of the Poet, or Mother of the Writer, as the occasion (and they are coming thick and fast) requires. Surely this beats being Mother of the Bride? No ugly dress! No questionable groom! No bill! It’s grand, I tell you.
I sound like I am bragging, but I do so love being the mother of a creative person and I want to promote her. I even cheered her on when she started making cupcakes, got better at it than me, and carved out my potential market share in Olympia. I am hoping that as her intellectual and creative powers increase, mine will not continue to dwindle, but we’ll see. Over and above accomplishments, it’s her kindness and glowing optimism I want to cherish and celebrate. May she ever remain so touchingly uncynical.
I am sorry to say her short story is not about food, however, I have something to say on the matter. The reception for the recipients of the scholastic awards was held sans snacks. Yes Eaters, you gasp, but there’s more. It took place from 5 to 7 in the evening when we are all at our most frightfully peckish. Do you find this as odd as I do? Even cruel? Before being let into the gallery to view the arts and letters, someone in charge of this foodless debacle said that everyone should get ready for “a spread.” She spoke these words. Was she teasing? When you hear “spread” don’t you see an enormous spread of…well, spreads, for one thing, and implements with which to spread them, and crispy crackers and crunchy, brilliantly-hued vegetables to spread them on. Ah well, some people can live on art, I guess. She also said, “Think of this as an enormous cocktail party.” Huh. Without cocktails or nibbles? No one has that good of an imagination, especially the weary, wine-deprived parent of a young writer.
At the very least they should have handed out a voucher for the Whole Foods across the street, where my husband and daughter ended up enjoying some scrumptious, overpriced pizza and salad. And who was at the next table? Two Pulitzer prize winners and a national book award finalist wolfing down quinoa pilaf! Apparently, they had the same caterers at their soiree. And now, the story:
Sweep by Phoebe C.
My daddy and I went to the doctor’s office today. I hate it there- it smells like antibacterial soap ‘n sickness, an’ the chairs look comfortable but actually scratch you n’ make you squirm. Just like everything else, they try to lure you in with fake smiles and good looks, but end up bein’ backstabbers. Truly- the chair had a stick poking out of the cushion.
We went into da room that looks like it was just sterilized within an inch o’ its life. Doctor sits us down, asks me and Daddy some questions about me an’ my habits, and then he asks me would I please wait outside while he chatted with my father for a moment. Typical grownup- thinkin’ I won’t know ‘zacktly what he’s talkin’ about to my dad.
When I go back into the room, he tells me that I got a condition called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. Thanks, Doc. I knew that already- I’ve read some books. He says it like it’s a good thing- guess what? It isn’t.
When Daddy and I get home, I curl up next ta him on the couch and think. Lotta kids in my school have OCD- Jimmy, now he’s much worsan me. He washes his hands ’bout every twenty minutes or so. Good thing we have a sink in our classroom, else he’d miss most of the day ’cause of bein’ in the restroom. Marta’s got somethin’, too. Sometimes I come back to da classroom cause I forget my lunch or my books, and she’s still there, checkin’ the windows, two, three, four times to make sure they’re locked up good and tight.
Me? I’m not a handwasher. I’m not a wacko whose always checkin’ their doors or windows nor nothin’ like that. Nah- I’m a sweeper.
My time at school isn’t so good. I don’t got a lotta friends, just the class guinea pigs, Fluffy and Raisin. I don’t get much good grades, either. I know lots about the world, though. I may not talk good, but I read lotsa books and I notice people and what they do when I go out. That man, walkin’ down the sidewalk just now? He was smilin’ at his little daughters next to him, but his fist was clenched at his side- he’s in pain.
I hate seein’ people feelin’ bad or sad or scared, but the thin’ is, those people exist, and they pass us by every damn day. That’s why I sweep.
Each day, after school, I book it on home. When I git there, breathless from running, I fling my books and lunch to the side, and grab my broom. I stand in the same spot, a special place by the fireplace an’ squishy armchair, and sweep. Twen’y minutes, thirty, minutes- one time I swept fur a whole hour.
Thin’ is, when I sweep, I feel better. Sweepin’ the floor feels ta me like sweepin’ away all my bad an’ sad thoughts. Like there’s a li’l shag carpet in my brain, and I can sweep my thoughts up under it. My daddy gits it- he was lots like me when he was my age, he says. He was a nervous li’l thing. Always makin’ sure all his brothers n’ sisters washed their hands good ‘fore every meal. Ma, though, she wasn’t that type. But that’s my ma, all around perfect. Always givin’ me extra hugs, an’ lettin’ me pick a cookie at the store. She mayn’t know what my mind is like, but she’s OK with my sweepin’, she says, so long as I don’t feel its hurtin’ me.
The day after goin’ to the doctor’s with Daddy, I git to school and there’s a girl I never seen before, standin’ at the front with the teacher, Ms. Calvin. I find myself studyin’ her a bit; I never seen anyone quite like her.
She’s smilin’ brightly, as though she’d just ‘membered somethin’ funny. Her hair is a brownish blond color, and it waves to the middle o’ her back. Her shirt is brown, an’ it has a sunflower on it. Her eyes are the color o’ the ocean. Her flip-flops got sand on them- I bet she lives on da beach.
Ms. Calvin clears her throat, tells us that this is Summer Journey, and that she just transferred to our school, and we all should be d’lighted to have her, an’ so on. After dat, I sorter zone out a bit, lookin’ out da’ window at the sunny skies, when Ms. Calvin says, “And Summer will need a welcome buddy. Let’s see…who hasn’t been one this year…” She checks her list. “Ah, Aspen! How about you?”
I freeze. I can’t be nobody’s welcome buddy. I barely ‘member how to find da restrooms in this place.
Ms. Calvin guides Summer to da empty desk next to mine. She says, “Aspen, at lunch, why don’t you show Summer where to go, where the bathrooms are, the gym, et cetera!” She says dis like it’s a huge treat- well, it ain’t.
First lesson o’ da day is Math. I hunch over ma notebook and worksheet as Calvin starts droning ’bout Order o’ Operations. I doodle in da margins, and den sneak a glance up at Summer. She be staring dreamily out da window, looking at the school garden. I scowl, an’ try ta start workin’ on ma math.
Da rest o’ da mornin’ goes on like dis, as we plow through English an’ History an’ a hundred other subjects dat I’m not too swell at. I frequently peek at Summer, and by lunch I am shocked- she had never stopped smilin’. Even while she was workin’ or raisin’ her hand or talkin’, the grin never left her face. I rarely smile – only when I’m with da hamsters or Ma or Daddy or doin’ art. She smiles all the time.
When da rest of da class gets in line fer lunch, Ms. Calvin calls to me, “Oh, Aspen! Don’t forget to show Summer the Art Room- I know you like it in there!”
I feel ma cheeks go red- I don’t like people talkin’ ’bout me or what I like ta do. But Summer smiles even brighter, which I didn’t think was possible, an’ sez, “You like art? Me too! Can we go there first?”
I mumble dat is fine by me, and off we go, Summer still smilin’. As we walk, she says, “So your name’s Aspen? That’s a beautiful name!”
I sorta blush an’ look at ma shoes. I don’t receive lotsa compliments from kids.
“Thanks,” I sez.
“So, what else do you like to do? Besides art, I mean,” Summer sez. I like the way she talks- like she’s about ta start laughin’.
“Um…I dunno,” I reply uneasily. “Whatta you like ta do?”
“I like lots of things!” By dis time we is in the Art Room, an’ Summer is lookin’ around at all the paintings an’ crafts an’ stuff. “I really like animals, and the beach, and other things outside.”
I smile, shyly. “Me, too. I can show you da cafeteria now, if ya want.”
Summer nods happily, an’ den, to my complete shock, grabs ma hand and starts skippin’ out o’ da classroom! I don’t know what ta do. No one has never held ma hand before, ‘cept for Ma or Daddy. I sorter run beside her, an’ she laughs.
“Come on! Skip with me!” She says this so happily, and she looks so care-free and like, well, summery, that all da amazement an’ shock an’ everythin’ I’ve been feelin’ builds up inside o’ me, and it comes spillin’ out in laughter. Suddenly, I’m laughin’ so hard dat ma stomach hurts and den Summer starts laughin’, too, and I can tell that she’s da kinda person who laughs every day, and I can imagine if a janitor or somethin’ walked around da corner just now, he’d see two girls in the middle of da hallway, laughin’ their heads off with nothin’ interesting happenin’ nor no funny pictures on da wall. He’d just think that these girls are crazy, and he’d go ’bout his business as doe nothin’ had happened.
But something has happened.
I love this girl. I love this girl who looks like the summer skies.
When I get home that day, I reach for the broom like I always do, and then change my mind-
You know how a mother bird returns to her nest with a worm and is met by an angry mob of competing open beaks, straining, chirping, jostling for feathery position to get at the worm, and then all but shoving the mother from the nest so she can go do it again? So that’s morning at my house.
It’s true, I only have two children, and my husband never actually asks for anything. But he is there, all the same, a silent, food-wanting presence. Over it all, the cat yowls with what can only be utter anguish of body and mind. Oh no! Was he lacerated by a vicious raccoon? No, he just wants me to fill his food dish. I realize that I am breaking one of two rules I set out for my blog, (never mention pets, never mention feet) but the over-arching principle of all blogs is this: never miss an opportunity to complain about your life.
Everybody knows I live for morning baked goods. The kitchen is the center of my world, but why is it always so crowded? My youngest is not a morning glory; daybreak is, in fact, an affront to her. She would be happiest with breakfast brought to her on a tray, so she could moodily stir honey into her tea and extend her repose, possibly falling back asleep. I do some crazy stuff, but catering to this might set the bar a bit high for her future college roommates. As she said to me once, “I can rise, but I can’t shine.”
I am not comparing, because I have read parenting manuals, (okay, just one) but I have to commend my oldest (to be fair, her natural rhythm makes her a morning person). She used to sit by in weepy victimhood as she sunk into a hypoglycemic state, despite a bounty of food – a veritable Dutch master’s still life’s worth – within arm’s reach. She is now adept at recognizing the signs of hunger and impending sassmouth, and fixes much of her own food, or at least the pre-breakfast that precedes the warm baked goods. This morning she was packing her lunch, and I reminded her to take a snack for play practice. “Um, mom, this isn’t my first rodeo.” Self-sufficiency and a quick retort? Clearly, my work here is done!
But you don’t choose your children and the unique biological rhythms that make them heaven, hell or purgatory in the morning. And it’s a good thing, too. I could never have dreamt up the particular mixtures of sweetness and quirkiness that are my daughters. My husband, I did get to choose, and besides the new upholstery fabric on the sofa I inherited from my parents, he’s the best choice I’ve made (like the fabric, he’s proved surprisingly durable).
So, since I have to see them every morning – I mean since I get to see them every morning – sometimes, I make them cake. This one comes from a pretty little book, D.I.Y. Delicious. I met the author, Vanessa Barrington, at a San Francisco farmer’s market where she was selling her book, along with some of her homemade preserves. She features her recipe for Plum Verbena Jam in her book. Have I told you I adore plums? I was particularly excited to make her stone fruit yogurt cake, since my freezer is bursting with plums. But I made it with blackberries and coconut because – get this – they don’t like plums in cake.
Because I love to court danger, I made it with all the wheat flour replaced with almond flour. It was crumbly, which I like, and quite good. The next time I made it with the walnuts and used blueberries and cranberries. I preferred the blackberry one, (and would have preferred plum, as I mentioned) because the cranberries were too sour for my impromptu sugar reduction. But my oldest daughter pronounced it the best rendition, and she would know: this isn’t her first rodeo.
Stone Fruit Yogurt Cake with Cornmeal and Walnut Streusel
1 1/2 cups flour (I like whole wheat pastry or almond flour)
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal (finer grinds are better here to avoid that pebbly sensation
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon soda
8 Tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup lightly packed granulated sugar (I reduced this by 40%)
1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar (I reduced this by 40%)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2/3 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
3 cups sliced fresh or thawed frozen plums or other fruit
1 cup pecan or walnut halves, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
Is it just me or does this recipe have a lot of ingredients? It’s good though.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Lightly butter and flour a 9 inch round cake pan. You can use a springform pan if you want to unmold it and serve it on a platter.
In a small bowl, sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
In a large bowl, using a handheld mixer, beat together the butter, granulated sugar and half the brown sugar until creamy. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix to combine.
Add the dry ingredients and the yogurt to the sugar mixture in two additions, starting with the dries and ending with the yogurt. Fold in the fruit.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Mix together the nuts and the remaining brown sugar and sprinkle over the top of the cake.
Bake on the middle shelf of the oven, until the cake rises in the center and browns, and a toothpick comes out clean, about 45 minutes.
Allow to cool completely before cutting and serving, says Vanessa Barrington. But I say, who can wait? Not these gals.