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Posts Tagged ‘sour cream coffee cake’

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The holiday season is a cranium-clocker of a monkey wrench when you’re told to keep an eye on your sugar intake. Ten years or so ago I significantly lowered the amount I eat, but of late, have had to reduce it further. A treat now and then is fine, but when you bake a cake for yourself, that’s some ten or twelve treats. And if you only eat certain cakes once a year, and really look forward to them…well, let’s just say the treat quotient adds up.

I wasn’t about to bend on making my favorite holiday cakes. I have to have two—sour-cream cinnamon chocolate chip cake, and sour-cream coffee cake. I’d already reduced the sugar in them, and had for a few years. But now I either had to reduce it further, or go without. I think we both know what happened.

Solid recipes stand up to almost anything, thank goodness.

The result was surprising. When you’re already accustomed to tasting less of one thing, everything else on stage steps forward to mug for the audience. (This is why I rhapsodize about restaurants who have the stones to serve a plain dessert on a plate. It means they trust that it can hold its own without a pile of goo on top.) Going even further: Making a cake with far less sugar, even than usual, made the other ingredients pop that much more…and the biggest diva in this cast of ingredients was butter.

As I ate, I thought about the things in our lives that we’re used to doing, and the things we’re obliged to change for whatever reason. Granted, some things just don’t fly, and never will.*

But who among us, biting into warm homemade cake and eagerly awaiting the first hit of flavor, would snub butter?

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*Things That Don’t Work Despite Any Amount of Optimism
1. Driving while eating yogurt
2. Bruce Willis’s 1987 R&B album
3. Me wearing anything Empire-cut

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Sour cream coffee cake that looks like pie because I cut back the sugar by half. I’ve since gotten smart: kept the sugar halved, but doubled the overall recipe to give it the height I remember. I can MacGyver quite a bit when it comes to food. Cinnamony and tender. Christmas 2011.

The holiday season is winding down—just three more days until Twelfth Night. This time of year is famously nostalgic for the sights and sounds, but especially smells and tastes, of times gone by.

All of the photos here evoke a place that feels peaceful, safe, and magical—however briefly. Think about it: we willingly do this to ourselves every year, and it’s not always fun getting to the finish line. Shopping, wrapping, gift hiding, card writing, cooking, cleaning, decorating, tree hunting, driving, spending, fretting, sweating. There’s something we’re getting out of it, or we’d never bother. And I don’t think we do it just for the kids’ sake, or just for religion’s sake. This agnostic doesn’t have kids, but she bakes and decorates every year. I have a friend, also child-free, who’s atheist, and currently has a live 10-foot tree in his foyer.

I believe we do it for the feeling, for that fleeting sense of calm and magic we remember. We grab it every year with both hands, despite the hassle, despite the cost, because it feeds something inside us that’s hungry. The smells of pine and cinnamon and peppermint make everything okay again. The magic soothes us like a hot chocolate bath.

Christmastime has the unique ability to take us back to a place we need to go…and nourish us when we get there.

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My first-ever candy snowmen, sitting on a sugared landscape. Whenever I make them now I remember seeing one of the kids at this party smooshing a snowman with his fist. I wasn’t mad; I thought it was hilarious. Almonds all the way. Something like Christmas 2006.

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Shepherd’s pie, made with lamb, naturally. I made this just after New Year’s Day, 2013. Nothing comes close to the real thing. Rich, nutmeggy, and creamy.

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Half-eaten traditional English Christmas cake, made from a recipe gifted to me by my elderly English neighbor. I had so much fun making this and enjoying it in ‘fingers,’ little slivers, as they do across the pond. Intensely flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and lots of dried fruit. Christmas 2013.

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Another first-ever: stollen. I shot this right out of the oven, just before I pulled its fluffy insides apart with my fingers. Full of fragrant, juicy dried fruit and orange peel. Christmas 2010.

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My room, with guest appearances by Douglas fir, white pine, juniper, and weeping willow. It smells woodsy and wintergreeny. The shot might be a current one, but the smells remind me of Christmases past.

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My Raggedy Ann, about 40 years old, in her worn calico dress. She sits under my tree every year.

 

 

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I spent this week outsmarting insects called no-see-ums, dismantling and cleaning my apartment, and restoring it after a fumigation, just as everyone enjoys doing a week before Christmas. Me in black leggings tucked into new and surprisingly tight black* Hanes socks, with a long-sleeved shirt tucked into my waistband, to deter the biters. Dressed like this while dragging out paper snowflakes, ceramic light-up houses, and a suped-up tree stand. I looked like a Goth elf. But I beat the invisible little suckers.**

This is good news. And because I’m tenacious and in decent shape, the house is clean, aired, and bug-less. But I’m not ashamed to say this ordeal wore me out. Extra treats have been essential to get me from point A to point B, and I have been enjoying them without the faintest trace of guilt. Christmastime offers up some awesome once-a-year treats. Maybe you could use a couple yourself. Here we go.

Things that Cheer Me Right Back Up

-Driving past the house nearby that has a porch decorated with lit trees and a life-sized Santa.

-Making gingerbread men (to be continued; the dough’s in the fridge to firm up). Finding a cookie cutter for them has proved preposterously futile, so I’m cutting them out freehand. Edibility is the only requisite here, which is good.

-Dim sum and crepes, plus homemade stuff: mozzarella in carrozza, burgers made in the manner of English spiced beef, proper stuffing (which I sadly missed at Thanksgiving), and sour cream coffee cake. The recipe is here.

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The Cake. It won a ribbon at the county fair and is a Christmas morning tradition. One year I even put it under the tree as a present to me. Maybe I’ll do it again.

-Following the local volunteer fire truck as the guys dress up and deliver early gifts to our kids. The kids jump up and down in picture windows and I can see them mouthing SANTA!

-Decorating my tree, which I keep in my room, and which was cut down by a gold miner (truth). Yukon Cornelius made a rare appearance in Colts Neck, NJ. He looked great for his age.

-Filling the bedroom with white pine to keep the tree company.

-Visiting the antiques store to see bits and pieces of Christmases past.

-Buying myself a rhinestone necklace and wearing it home from the mall, even though I had on work boots. Logic, schmogic.

-Observing the sky at dusk on New Year’s Day to predict what kind of a year 2016 will be. It’s an old custom. You want to look for a cloud shaped, however vaguely, like a bull. Totally not kidding! Look it up.

-Reading my old book of Christmas ghost stories, which are less scary than they are quaint.

-Sending Christmas cards. I might be one of the only people who likes this activity. That and eating fruitcake (caveat: homemade).

-Opening my vintage Advent calendars, which are German, at least 50 years old, and were owned by my neighbors growing up.

Sweet.

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Girl after my own heart.

*I wear black clothes a lot. It matches everything, plus it’s all that’s allowed backstage.

**These guys can get in through window screens. Explains why I never saw them.

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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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Fall is such an evocative season. Since it happens to be fall, and you caught me mid-evoke, let’s expound on that.

Last week I was walking by the realtors’ office downtown, housed in a 100+ year-old building, and their door was open. The scent coming out of the office was one I haven’t smelled in 30 years: it brought me back to my aunts’ and uncle’s immaculately-kept house. Quite inexplicably. And awesomely.

Then there was the time I heard Mario Batali on TV rhapsodizing about marjoram, an herb not used in my house growing up, nor in my own as an adult. I bought a jar of it, opened it, and time-travelled again: I was a toddler, it was 1973, and I was looking at a storybook that featured a bunny and scratch and sniff panels, one of which must have featured marjoram.

I never saw that coming. I hadn’t even remembered that book until I smelled that herb. Curious as to why the author included it; what an unusual choice. Again, though, not complaining. It was incredibly cool.

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The smell of

…Grand Marnier will always and forever remind me of the copiously-spiked whipped cream my dad used to make.

…hot French fries and salt air means home.

…yeast means Easter bread. (I talk about this adventure a lot. Like a whole lot.)

…balsam brings me back to the living room of one of my childhood best friends.

…cinnamon means many things, but topping that list is my mom’s sour cream coffee cake. It won an honorable mention at the county fair one year; the judges’ only real quibble was that they wanted more of the gooey filling inside. (I have since, and wisely, doubled the filling. I know you’re all relieved to hear.) The picture above totally doesn’t do it justice because I don’t have a Bundt pan, which I’ll admit is egregious.

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Where do smells take you?

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Hot pastrami on rye, Ben’s Best, Queens.

It’s not like it ever stops, but lately it seems societal angst about food has been escalating, spinning off madly into illogic. It’s worrisome, and it’s not necessary.

Here’s the thing, and I’m speaking as someone who knows from illness (most of my 30s) that kept me from eating a lot of foods, and from being overweight (through high school and college). I learned a lot from being fat and from being sick. The answers are actually pretty simple, so let’s not make it any harder than it has to be.

1) Food is about balance. It’s not about eliminating entire food groups, or about denouncing natural ingredients, or about imposing senseless deprivation upon ourselves. Let’s keep sugar, fats, and carbs off the cosmic dartboard. That’s no way to live.

The body can manage short bouts of overdoing the fat and calories. While in Scotland for a week I watched my ex eat a classic UK breakfast: bangers, buttered toast, eggs, the works. This meal was for centuries the rich but wholesome foundation of a working farmer’s day, and that farmer needed every calorie. My ex is not a farmer. Yet he survived. For a week, the body can handle almost anything.

Historically, the human race has more or less structured their lives around eating moderate portions of wholesome foods plus the odd treat during the week, and blowing the lid off a bit on weekends (Sunday dinner) and holidays (eggnog). This system worked pretty well. It’s when we started to eat as if every day was a weekend, as if every day was a holiday, that we got ourselves into trouble.

Now a lot of people hand out stickers on Halloween instead of candy. This is a tragedy and a travesty, an adulterated—and I use that word deliberately—slam in the face of tradition. Part of the euphoria kids feel on Halloween is based on indulging in treats—treats that, during the year, they’re only allowed on occasion. Adults need to act like adults again. We need to re-establish moderation, to maintain balance in everyday eating. Lose the damn stickers. For one night a year, bring back the Milky Ways.

2) Food is pleasure. There is nothing quite like experience of eating the first slurpy peach of the season, or a warm fat heirloom tomato pulled off the vine. But neither is there anything quite like Aunt Rosemary’s lasagna fresh from the oven, or Mom’s sour cream coffee cake. These foods deserve honor, not our projected castigation and reproach. Too much of anything is no good, be it Pop-Tarts or fresh blueberries. Enjoy rich foods, every single mouthful. Eat them slowly. Appreciate them. Write about it and describe it passionately, if you’re as nutty as I am. Treat them like the treats they are. 

3) Food is connection. Food is not just for silencing hunger. Other hungers are fed as well: our need to express love and to feel loved, to protect and to feel safe, to share memories and to remember. I love cooking for people, and I love tasting other people’s gifts of food. Everybody gets so excited. It’s powerful. I love sharing what I’m eating and being offered bits of my friends’ food. Some people hate that, but not me. It’s a sign of intimacy. When you go out a lot to eat with actors, food gets passed around. I have one friend who never wants his pickle, so I take it. Recently I picked all of the peaches out of his fruit cocktail with my fingers. It’s not classy, but it’s home—even if you’re away from it.

Go easy on yourselves, everybody. Keep balance in your eating. Enjoy everything. We’re supposed to be happy on this planet.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get a peanut butter moose tracks cone. And I’ll live.

 

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