Phew! I’m back! Rumors of my death were greatly exaggerated. And the rumors that I was away on my solo ten day culinary tour of Thailand (complete with cooking lessons, Eaters!) were likewise untrue, more’s the pity. I cannot convince my husband that it would be 5,000 well-spent dollars, even though he would get to have homemade spicy soup for the rest of his life! No, no, nothing like that; we were in Tucson visiting my in-laws.
The availability of hiking, the brilliant blue sky and the proximity of Miraval Spa (not to be confused with the adjacent celebrity rehab ranch, which is also out of my price range) made me crave fresh, slightly austere spa food. But we had two birthdays to celebrate, my youngest daughter’s and mother-in-law’s, and I had made some sweet promises. Being a willing baker is like having large breasts; people never really expect you to bring anything else to the table; you become known for it. Bringing the dessert equals showing up with cleavage. I hate to disappoint.
Being from the green Northwest, I have not always been aware of the beauty of the desert. The west coast of Washington with it’s lush forests and abundance of wild berries always seemed so generous and the desert felt, stingy in contrast. I always thrilled to the change from the endless damp, but the fugue of saguaro, mesquite, ocotillo, repeat, seemed exotic but limited. The Northwest’s ecosystem does house a teeming variety of life but on a hike in the Catalina Mountains, I saw something new and lovely in the smooth rocks, scrubby pines and prickly pear.
My husband’s uncle offered to take me hiking, since my daughters find the heat oppressive and my husband considers hiking to be an activity not covered under the marriage contract. Uncle John is 25 years my senior and after a morning spent following him up a steep trail, my tongue coated with dust from his swiftly disappearing sneakers, I am convinced he is part mountain goat – perhaps a satyr. He told me tales of his early life as he led me to the Romero Pools, the perfect spot to dip my weary toes and, since I was there, the rest of me. I frightened a snake, saw a dragonfly as orange as my birthday girl’s hair and a butterfly as wide as a dessert plate.
Ah yes, dessert plates. What good are they if not laden with a slice of ice cream cake and festooned with large round sprinkles (known as “quins”)? So I made a vanilla cake, sawed it in two, interspersed the layers with two pints of ice cream and vigorously tamped it all down. I have yet to find a foolproof vanilla cake recipe, plus I was traveling so – it pains me to admit this – I used Trader Joe’s vanilla cake mix. In Seattle my luggage was searched at security and there was the cake mix box next to my undies, for all the world to see. Airport security exposed me for the fake that I am. The security officer looked puzzled by the 8 inch spring form pan in there but hey buddy, I don’t ask you what you do on your vacations.
My daughters festooned the cake with quins but I let the sun go down before I could get a photo. Capturing the soul of an ice cream cake on camera is tricky. You have about a 2 minute window before its perkiness starts to puddle. I missed my opportunity because I was distracted by a discussion about books; I consider myself fortunate when I am forced to choose between two crowning passions (I had already been able to experience two of my other passions: plunging into water in a natural setting and visiting The Mini-Time Machine Museum of Miniatures). The cake was pretty, but too sweet and decadent for my mood. I would have preferred a spa menu item like grapefruit-lime granita with mint and chili powder or some other delight that could double as a skin treatment. Still, I was happy to make my daughter and MIL feel celebrated.
Thank you John for the hike, the photographs and the hospitality. Thank you also for your granola recipe; I will dream about it tonight and make it tomorrow. John has assured me that I may use the recipe in this blog, since he claims that in his senior years he no longer has secrets. That means more family recipes are in my future, along with more juicy stories.