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Posts Tagged ‘coffee cake’

For a dozen years I had as a neighbor an Army veteran, borough fire chief (in the 1950s), a gardener who outlived two wives, and one of the last true outdoorsmen from the Greatest Generation. He loved canoeing as a kid in the 1930s and said he knew every stream and byway of Deal Lake. He taught kids how to fish on Sandy Hook when he was in his eighties. He showed me the secret patch of beach plums that he’d been visiting every year since childhood, at first with his mother, and then on his own, to get fruit for his favorite jam. He hunted wild turkey every Thanksgiving week, teaching me all about those very smart and very fast birds, and swearing they made the best soup in the world. He’d wave at me from his tiny front porch, pushing 90 years old, and call out, ‘Still here.’

When he went into the hospital for a couple of weeks, he told me to help myself to anything I wanted in the little 10×10′ garden he planted between his house and detached garage, and I loved pulling sweet baby carrots for dinner. When I’d bring him a piece of coffee cake I made with my wild mulberries, he was one of the very, very few people who wouldn’t look at me like I was a mental case. He’d devour it, then grin and tell me to keep practicing.

In front of his little house grows a lavender rhododendron bush. One day, when his second wife was still living, he showed me a straggly rose bush planted in front of it and told me he really wanted to pull it out, but didn’t because she liked it.

We lost him a few years ago. I rode my bike past the house today. The rhododendron is still there, healthy and enormous, and taking over the yard. But it took me sticking my bike-helmeted head under the branches, and looking around in the dim light for a quite a few minutes, to spot what I was looking for.

He was a widower for a good five years after she passed, and never lost his sharp mind. He didn’t forget to pull it out. He left it because of her, and I’m probably the only one who knows. But I guess all of you know now, too.

Saluting Mr. Cook this Memorial Day. Your rosebush is still here. So are you.

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Above is a little maple cream tart I made—just flour, butter, eggs, cream, and pure maple syrup. Give me, any day, a tart that calls for five pronounceable ingredients that can fit in my little hippie purse versus a list full of multi-syllabic words containing the letter z.

Authenticity is a very deliberate running theme in my life. People, conversations, theatre props, ingredients, what have you. I like things whittled down to simple and straightforward, for the most part. No fussy or strange stuff added. (Although sometimes I eat peanut M&Ms. But I think if you’re going to fall off the wagon with something, that’s a worthy selection.)

I’m happier doing a lot of tasks by hand, too. My kitchen is overwhelmingly ungadgeted. Never owned a microwave. I make my own vanilla extract of plain vodka and split vanilla beans. Schnapps I make of crab apples I pick down by the lake every October, steeped in sugar and vodka. Herbs are dried and stored in little recycled glass jars. I bake bread and coffee cakes and make puddings for my breakfast. I keep a Hefty bag full of bread crumbs in my freezer, full of all of the middles of rolls that I scoop out. Foraging—now that’s something I’ve talked about quite a lot, too. In a couple of weeks I’ll be picking the first of the season’s dandelion greens, loving it to my very core, and taking fewer trips to Foodtown.

Out of the kitchen, I make laundry detergent with washing powder, Borax, and Ivory soap that I grate with a cheese grater into a big Pyrex bowl and mix with a spoon. I cut up clean old t-shirts and socks that can’t be darned anymore, and use them as rags instead of buying sponges and paper towels. (In other news, I darn socks.) When my shower curtains wear out, I wash them and use them as tarps. Lord knows they’re waterproof. And the purse I mention above is made of patched-together, raw recycled silk in dozens of colors. When it gets a tear, I mend it with any color thread I like and it doesn’t show. I bought the purse for $32 from a little company that started out selling t-shirts out of a van at Grateful Dead concerts.

Why would anyone who calls herself sane live like this? Well…it’s not because I’m some Luddite (note the subtle use of WordPress), and it’s not to make some sort of glib retro statement. I do it because I need to, because the more I strip away the redundancies and the cocktail-party, small-talk pretensions of the world, the saner I feel.

I’ve always been wired up this way, having grown up in a climate that felt largely put on, one that obliged me to smile for the camera whether or not it felt honest. It got old, as well it should. And it made me dislike—distrust is a better word—pretension of any kind. Because baby, if you scratch away at that shell, you usually find cracks.

I’d like to keep the instances of cracks to a minimum now.

My life when alone, I am convinced, is best spent living in the above manner. My life spent with others is best spent with happy people—ones who are as relaxed around me as I am around them, talking from the heart, feeling with passion, laughing like heathens, and putting away a few of those maple tarts. My life gets to be my authentic invention, made by my own hands. I won’t settle for less.

 

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What’s the difference between what truly satisfies and what doesn’t? We’ve heard about determining what’s enough; that’s been posed at least since the ’90s, when the Benetton and zircon-brooch* excess of the previous decade got to all of us. The threshold of enough is in the eye of the beholder, and for me, it’s pretty easy pickings.

It’s being in reasonably good health (check), which I don’t take for granted after many years of stress-related illnesses and a further-cheering car accident chaser. It’s people around me who want to be there (check). A non-leaky roof over my head and warm walls within a safe town (check). Having a few electronics and a car that behave (check). A well-stocked kitchen (checkity check check). Grains, olive oil, good quality chocolate**, milk, yogurt, some protein. An avocado ripening on the dining room table is a lovely thing. It’s having a freezer with butter and snoozing yeast, slices of my homemade coffee cake, tubs of chicken broth, Ziplocked fruits I’ve bought, foraged, or picked at the farm. That’s close to what constitutes enough, at least for me.

One step farther. What’s the difference between enough and plenty? What constitutes plenty? Because as I see it, if we’re operating from a place of plenty, it significantly changes our experience of the world. It feels a lot different than enough.

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I saw this book in Anthro as soon as I started thinking about this post. Riddle: How many Plenty books are plenty? Answer: JUST ONE. Ha! I slay me.

Lest you think I’m advocating the spend-happiness of our culture, no. When it comes to buying extras, I generally don’t. I’m not a stuff person. Small and manageable is my thing. (To further amplify: I don’t have a kazillion dollars, but if ever I did, I wouldn’t build an 11-bedroom monolith to myself with two sun rooms and a cat porch.*** Plenty might mean torso-high vases in a color West Elm calls ‘aubergine,’ but I’m skeptical.)

Plenty, like enough, is in the eye of the beholder. The Danes have a word that comes closest to what plenty means to me: hygge (pronounced HUE-gah). There’s no clear-cut translation into English, but here: it’s the well-being that comes from creating and living in a place of warmth, coziness, and safety, of enjoying the good things in life with the people who matter most. That’s a different planet from enough; that’s letting the peace that comes from plenty wash over you, and deliberately and consciously sinking into it. I think it’s worth seeking out, for ourselves and for the old ripple effect of it, you know?

The last time I felt a sustained sense of plenty—I narrowed it down—was in the late ’80s when I wore Benetton and zircon brooches and was sent to a small boarding school with my brother and sister. It was an unusual place, one in which I felt constant, enthusiastic, and unconditional support from the staff. And the food was decent to boot. I remember crossing the grounds at night on my way to the library, looking up at the winter sky, and feeling deep peace, of being right where I wanted to be and with the right people.

I’ve felt a sense of plenty in bits and pieces many times since then, and have made a point to suck the marrow out of each instance. It hit most notably a few years ago when I had a surge of creativity that brought me squarely into food writing as well as bigger leaps into marzipan-making and theatre. I’ve always been a project person, but I was unexpectedly gobsmacked with a whoosh of new and cool and way more fulfilling. The Mad Hatter told Alice that she’d lost her muchness, and so had I. I got it back. I had to slay a few Jabberwocks to get there, but all in a day’s work.

It hit again recently when I had a windfall of sorts and felt a calm ooze over me like warm blackberry honey. That evening I zipped off on my bike. And with no plan at all I felt my feet take me to places I’d never been before, found new foraging grounds, and came within a few yards of one seriously surprised white-tailed deer.

My years of working with children taught me that the more secure kids feel, the more adventurous they are. It does not fail. That night felt like a crazy and delicious head trip, but it wasn’t drugs. It was the plenty.

I’m still looking for that elusive sustained plenty, that sense not just of having enough but of being sated. I’ll know it when I see it.

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Macy’s, for example, spells it wrong.

Here’re a few ways I feel the plenty, when I find it in bits and pieces.

-A shamelessly exuberant, burst-open flower.

-A really good conversation.

-Harvesting anything, especially foraging, and really especially finding new plants.

-The beach—its smell, its textures, its ever-changing and unabashed wildness.

-Nailing a cue onstage. The tougher, the bloody well better.

-Kneading and punching down bread dough.

-Celebrating every season.

-Making something with my hands.

-Warming someone who’s been cold inside.

-The magic in a genuine connection.

-Watching a small-town parade.

-Dramatic weather—being utterly immersed in snowflakes, blowing leaves, or fog.

-Noticing something beautiful amid the ordinary.

-Writing this piece. It’s been banging around in my head for months.

-A full-fat ice cream cone.

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*I had a bunch of these and wore them with a shoulder-padded black jacket and looked FLY, dude.

**Hey, I made that the third item and not the first. Impressive!

***I have no idea what this is. I hope I just made it up. Please don’t google it. If you do, please don’t tell me it exists.

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I spent part of Christmas morning volunteering at the Salvation Army’s holiday party for the needy. Every square foot of the giant rec room was occupied with food, face painting, Santa, a live band, a walk-around magician, and a toy and winter clothing giveaway, all sponsored by a local Italian restaurant and many, many donors. Yes, we totally tripped over each other, but it was a gas.

I was manning the dish and takeout station when the little girl above came over just to show us her new teddy bear. She glowed like the sun and wiggled a lot, which is why the picture came out somewhat blurry. The woman serving salad beside me said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if all it took for us to be that happy was a teddy bear?’

Below, our coats thrown into a heap in the kitchen by a box of aluminum serving pans. That’s mine above left, with the fuchsia scarf.

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The chef seasoning the next massive pan of macaroni and cheese.

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Mr. Cutie below isn’t afraid. And his mom has no qualms about joining him.

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The little boy on the right was very resourceful in thinking to use the box from his new truck as a tray for his two desserts. But he was so amped up that they slid off. I’m actually surprised he made it to his table. This was shot just before both desserts took a splat.

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Face painting, patience, and another pink slip owner.

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A gentleman who came through the buffet had this around his neck, and I said, ‘I love your plane! Did you make that? It’s from an Arizona can!’ He looked amazed and said, ‘Yeah! And you’re the first person I’ve met who knew it was a plane!’

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*A woman came through the buffet line with two children, and I asked her if she wanted plates as well as takeaway boxes. (Both would have been fine.) She said, ‘Oh, no, just the plates; I want to be respectful.’

*Another woman had her eye on some winter gloves being offered free of charge, but didn’t feel comfortable going to the table to get them, so she asked me to be her scout. She was quite earnest; had the color all picked out because she could see them at a distance. I got some for her pal, too. When I brought them over she grinned and high-fived me.

*As I handed out bags of apples and oranges, a man snagged my sleeve and said, ‘Thanks, honey. Merry Christmas.’

*A man in a purple jacket came through the line with a cane featuring a beautifully carved eagle head. I said, ‘That’s gorgeous! Did you make that?’ He tipped up his chin and smirked and said, ‘I designed it!’

Speaking of birds, here are two outside the building with a Christmas bagel. Sounds counter-intuitive, but there it is.

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The deliciousness continued that afternoon, hiking in the Currier-and-Ives-like rolling hills and pastures of Navesink, and shooting as much of the dramatic light as I could…

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..and eating a great deal of the sour cream coffee cake I bake myself every year.

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My Raggedy Ann (circa 1970) always sits under my tree, which is in my room so I can look at the lights as I fall asleep. Sometimes when I refill the water in the base I accidentally bump into her and she flops flat backwards, which kills me every time. She’s old and stained, but she’s still got comic mojo.

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Peace and blessings.

 

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Charlie Brown had a point when he said the holiday season can be kind of a letdown. Here’s a big portion of the planet spending December frantic, shooting for some magical feeling, a high, it seems to me, that will make all of this breathless marathoning worth it…and never quite finding the finish line.

Do you get that sense, too? Like we’re all reaching for something quite possibly unattainable, at least by the means we typically use (shopping, wrapping, cooking, decorating, schlepping)?

Parents of small children know the race, for the most part, is over by 7am on Christmas morning. And I bet they’d vote for going back to sleep until mid-January if they had the choice. Jews get eight nights, chosen as they are.  But they too might well feel that sort of wistful question mark after the last candle is lit.

It’s time for a reassessment already. As often—usually—overtaxed adults, I think it’s asking a lot of a holiday, and of ourselves, to push ourselves every year to exhaustion, reaching for a phantom high.

My posts this holiday season have emphasized cutting ourselves some slack and letting go of lunatic expectations that pummel us. I have one more point to make, and here it is: Even if that holiday high is out there, it would be over in a breath. That’s the nature of euphoria. Now ask if it’s worth it.

Contentment, now—that’s a different ballgame. Contentment doesn’t get the press that euphoria gets, but it lasts longer and is far more nourishing to the soul. So maybe that’s what we should go for.

Instead of hamster-wheeling ourselves into a frenzy from Black Friday to New Year’s Day, shooting for a high, let’s shoot for warmth. Coziness. Peace.

To wit: My mom’s sour cream coffee cake. It will not find the elusive pink suede booties your sister’s lusting after. It won’t keep your dog from chewing the little round bits of Styro left on the floor, courtesy of Best Buy. But Mom found the recipe in our local newspaper some 30 years ago and has been baking it in an ancient Bundt pan every Christmas morning for decades. It’s that good. It’s a step toward contentment…I promise you.

No chocolate chips in this puppy. Idiot-proof. (Want to know how much? When I was a teenager I started mixing up this batter, and 90% of the way through I realized I hadn’t been going by the directions, but had just been dumping the ingredients into the bowl, straight down the list. It still turned out perfect.) My mom adds walnuts to the filling; I thought, and still do, that they have no place in cake. I picked them out of every slice I ate and deposited them on the cake plate, and she’d eat them over the course of the day. It was a system that worked. But add them if you like them.

1 c butter, softened

2 c sugar

2 eggs

1 c sour cream

1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 c all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 c brown sugar, packed

Heat oven to 350. In a large bowl, cream butter and add sugar gradually, beating until very light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, very well. Fold in cream and vanilla. In a medium-sized bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt, and add this gradually to the butter mixture.

In a small bowl, combine nuts (if using), cinnamon, and brown sugar.

Pour half of the batter into a well-greased and floured Bundt pan or 9″ tube pan. (You can really use any pan that’s big enough to hold the batter. If you use a rectangular Pyrex, or a springform pan, as I do, just reduce the cooking time.) Sprinkle with 3/4 of the cinnamon mixture. Pour remaining batter on top, then sprinkle with remaining cinnamon mixture.

Bake about 1 hour or until a tester comes out clean (check it after 45 minutes, just to be safe). Let it sit on a rack until cool. De-pan it, dust with powdered sugar and put a sprig of fresh holly on it, as my mom does, or be a heathen like me, add nothing, and cut a big greedy slice for yourself.

This cake won honorable mention in the county fair a few years ago, and the judges’ notes read, “Add more filling.” They may be right. Double the filling if you want and see if you like it better. It won for the soft, dense, tender texture—sour cream blesses every cake this way. I made the cake in the picture with plain lowfat yogurt instead of sour cream, and lessened the sugar to 3/4 c, so it’s not as high as my mom’s, but the texture is pretty much the same.

In October I broke my collarbone, moved two weeks later, then had surgery, so I couldn’t tear around like a rabid ferret the way I always do during Christmastime. Which is why I think I came up with the above shattering realization that we have the power to make the holidays a letdown or not. All I know is that I made this humble cake on Christmas Eve, and was so excited for it that I actually toyed with the idea of putting it under the tree. Contentment this year came in the shape of a springform.

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Mulberry tree in full fruit.

A few years back I read an advice column written by a master gardener. Someone wrote in, distraught about an apple tree on his property, and asked if there was anything he could do to prevent ‘the mess’ the tree caused every fall. To which the columnist (after a stiff drink, likely) suggested the unthinkable: collecting up the apples and baking something.

Now take the wild black mulberry tree. It’s messy, too, but I’m glad. Hydrophilic and sandy-soil-philic, they’re profuse in the watery area where I live, and in mid-June it’s easy to find a mulberry tree: the area below it is helpfully stained purple.

The first time I ever tasted a mulberry was when I was 19 and a summer camp bus counselor. Outside one chronically-late girl’s house was a huge tree, and one day to pass the time the driver, a native Italian, climbed out and started snacking on the fruit. I tried one and asked what they were. He didn’t know the name in English, but said people ate them all the time in Italy. Years later I learned the name and found some wild trees I could raid instead of Sadie’s.

These delicately sweet berries are wonderful baked into muffins or coffee cakes, cooked into jam—throw in a few almost-ripe red ones to add a tart counter-note to the ripe black’s sweetness—and tossed into your Cheerios. I hear they also dry very well. (If you have a dehydrator and decide to give it a whirl, let me know how it goes.)

My favorite tree is on a narrow road between a lake and a supermarket. It’s not in the hottest location. But since a lot of towns have cut the branches back from my old favorites, and I’m 5’3″ and only have a wimpy stepladder, I go where the low-hanging fruit is.

Ripe mulberries fall off the tree very easily. In fact, the best way to harvest them is by spreading a few tarps around the base of the tree and giving the trunk a good shake. I usually go the slow route and pick them one by one.

Either way, in all of the years I have been doing this (five? six?), someone always walks by, calls out, or pulls over to ask what I’m picking.*

Then they look up at the tree and say they have passed this way hundreds of times, but have never noticed it. This is how it goes, without fail. And when I tell them it’s a mulberry tree and that the fruit is edible, they always get the same look on their faces. Did you ever surprise someone by telling him or her that the ABC song has the same melody as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’? That’s the look. (I bet some of you have it right now, huh?) It’s a combination of incredulity and wonderment. But there’s something more—the look of someone who had lost something, had long forgotten about it, and then turned the corner and is suddenly reunited with it.

This year the first person who stopped to ask about the tree was a pony-tailed woman in her mid-twenties, tattoos up one arm. She actually got out of her car to come and talk to me. I asked her if she baked. The look on her face was wistful. She looked at the tree the whole time, almost never at me, and I’m not exaggerating or being melodramatic—the look was of lost love. She said she used to bake all the time, but hasn’t in a while.

‘How long will they be available?’

‘No more than a week, less if it rains. Make muffins—that’s easy.’

I have a feeling she came back. Pretty gratifying to imagine.

The next person walked over on his way into the supermarket, a young guy.

‘Do they need cooking? Can I eat one right now?’

‘Try those over there; they’re ready. They’re sweet, but not sweet-sweet.’

He went right for it. ‘I like that. That’s good!’

I heard the next person before I saw him. He was sitting on a parked bulldozer and was watching me from the lot. This was the first person I ever met who didn’t ask what I was picking. Instead he called out, ‘What are you making?’

This guy, in his late forties, was fascinating. He told me the best way to pick them was by spreading a tarp and shaking the tree. Yeah, I know.

‘No one ever knows what I’m picking,’ I called back. ‘How do you know?’

‘My grandfather picked them every year. He made mulberry wine,’ he grinned.

Wow. ‘How was it?’

‘Oh!’ He tilted his head back and grinned some more. A good sign.

‘When was the last time you had mulberry wine?’

‘Man…he died in 1980. Before that.’ From the smile on his face, it looked as if thirty years had just dissolved.

I love talking to these passersby while we pick and eat berries. Just as in Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, the mulberry tree gives and we all get. Sure, there’s the fruit; but even more, there’s a kind of peace, in a way. By chatting with my neighbors and getting their stories, them getting mine, finding commonality and learning something we didn’t know before, this pushes the pause button on our increasingly narrow, tunnel-visioned lives.

And for a brief time, during those five minutes or ten minutes or whatever, there is peace in remembering a time when people looked outward more often, when we saw and understood and interacted so much more often with each other and with the natural world than we do now.

Maybe that memory is part of our human heritage, and learning that a tree growing nearby gives fruit, freely, to anyone who wants it reminds us of that heritage, makes it accessible again, and who knows, maybe makes us a little more human.

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*I read about a guy who was biking across the country and never had trouble finding room or board, often for free. He hypothesized that people figured an endeavor like his would only be undertaken by an honest guy. Could it be the same for someone who would pick fruit from a wild tree?

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