Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Homely Cake

     A couple with two young boys came to dinner last week. When I served chocolate cake for dessert, the six-year-old said, “I’ve been waiting for this cake my whole life!” He has a flair for the dramatic. He was offended when we all burst out laughing, so I told him that was the nicest thing anyone has ever said about my baking. And it is.

     We had an Irish couple over for dinner once who told us we were a very homely family. I figured there was a cultural glitch and they weren’t really telling us we were unattractive. After a discreet inquiry, I realized they were trying to tell us we were comfortable folks. They were correct in their use of the word, it just isn’t common to use it that way in this part of the United States.

     Now, back to the cake.

     My husband said it was the best chocolate frosting I have ever made, and it was a highlight to his weekend. Now I wish I had written down the recipe. As per usual, I was messing with a recipe I had in my head, fully expecting to make a botched job of it. As per usual, when it turned out a success I didn’t think I could ever forget what I had done because my triumphs are so rare.

     As near as I can remember, I melted 2-3 tablespoons of butter with 2 cups of semi-sweet chocolate chips and 5-6 squares of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate bar. Then I whisked in 2 cups of powdered sugar and kept adding splashes of half and half until the stuff was smooth and thin enough to spread over the cake. I meant to put in some vanilla but I forgot. As you have probably guessed, baking isn't my strong suit.

     It was a homely cake, simple but good, and it didn't last through the weekend.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Strawberry Sandwiches

     I used to earn money for school clothes by picking produce in the summer: beans, raspberries, strawberries. Some of the valley farms would send old buses into town to haul kids out to the fields to work.

     Strawberries were the most difficult to pick because of the long, tedious hours bending low under the hot sun over row after row of strawberry plants, or scrubbing along on my hands and knees with my nose nearly in the dirt. The money wasn’t good either, it added up slowly because I was a novice. I envied the speed of the migrant workers. But picking berries offered another payoff: nothing tastes better than a warm, ripe, juicy, sweet field strawberry. I suppose I should make that plural, strawberries, because that would be nearer the truth. Occasionally, when I found a perfect, ruby-red jewel hidden beneath an emerald leaf, I ate it. Maybe that’s why I can’t get good berries at the store, someone out in the field is eating all of the ripe ones before they make it into the box.

     This is the time of year I buy truckloads of strawberries looking for those perfect jewels like Jason and the Argonauts questing for the Golden Fleece. If I buy them, I have to use them and I don’t make jam anymore. So I began making strawberry sandwiches a couple of years ago: a dab of butter, a smear of cream cheese and sliced strawberries layered on crustless bread. Yummy. If you cut them into little triangles they taste even better. I thought I had invented them. Ah, the hubris of the ignorant. After an interested query about them on my Ugly Cake post, I decided to Google strawberry sandwiches. I’m not so clever as I thought I was.

     Three thousand years ago, Solomon, the wise King of Jerusalem, wrote: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) I wonder if he ever ate strawberry sandwiches.

     Apparently, they are only new to me.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Tea With Fairies

Timbrel and Whimsey
   When my girls were considerably smaller than they are now and began losing baby teeth along the way, it was Gossamer Tooth-fairy who came to collect the teeth they left for her under their pillows. She gave them silver coins in exchange for their molars and cuspids, and she always wrote a letter to thank them. Gossamer had two girls of her own, Timbrel and Whimsey, whom she was training in the family business, but she did not always bring the girls with her because they were young and got into mischief. (I wonder…Is that how Miss Primrose ended up with her head stuck in the dresser drawer?) Sometimes, if she didn’t have too many other houses to visit, she stopped to take a cup of tea with me. Then one day she invited me to her place. 

     I went to tea in Fairyland and I will never be the same again. You might very well ask, “Where is this magical place?” The thing of it is, you don’t even have to leave your own kitchen table or back garden to get there. The way in to Make-Believe can be found simply in the bright glance of the moon at night, the sudden flash of a flicker’s wing, or the singing green of a rainy summer’s day. Once you have been there, you will recognize the signs.

    My favorite teacup is the one Gossamer sent home with me. It is green majolica embossed with leaves, large enough for a fairy to take a bath in, but quite small by our standards. I don’t mind its size; I can refill it as many times as I like. Besides, the teeny-tiny teacup from the Peter Rabbit china set I used to serve Gossamer when she came to call was almost as big as her head and she managed. When I use it I can imagine I am supping in a tree with my fairy friend, or sitting in the grass beneath the shady boughs of an orchard with the birds pipping among the peaches for our pleasure. 

     I haven’t sat down to tea with Gossamer for a long while because the girls stopped losing their teeth years ago. But my oldest daughter has children of her own now, and Gossamer promised me the last time she came that when they begin losing their teeth she will send Timbrel to gather them. Timbrel always had a sweet-tooth; she found it under a pillow and carries it in her pocket. Perhaps I’ll be able to tempt her to tea with a slice of cake and sugar lumps.

Illustrations by Amelia Jane Murray, Lady Oswald, (1800-1896)
"Amelia was born in Port-e-Chee on the Fairy Island of the Isle of Mann, the daughter of Lord Henry Murray, whose ancestors had for generations been styled the Kings of Man. She and her five borthers and sisters had a privileged childhood, living at Mount Murray, a house five miles south of Douglas. Her Fairy paintings date from the 1820s. She was inspired by the rich folklore of the Isle of Mann, epitomised by the name of her birthplace, Port-e-Chee, which in Manx Gaelic means 'Fairy Music'" — Peter Nahum

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Jubilee Dreams

     Perhaps I had been watching too much jubilee coverage. A few nights ago, I dreamed I was at a garden party in Queen Elizabeth’s back yard at Buckingham Palace. Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie, who were still children, had stumbled over a pile of poetry shards lying in the grass and were stooping down to examine it with great interest and compassion as though it were a wounded animal. Meanwhile, the rest of the party was riding away on horses, wearing red coats and fox hunting clobber. The queen was nowhere in sight.

     Sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland, doesn’t it? At least Her Royal British Majesty wasn’t shouting, “Off with her head!” Queen Elizabeth seems too good-tempered to ever say such a thing. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


The Tale of Peter Rabbit
     Sitting down for a late breakfast of tea and toast one morning, gazing out the window as usual, I saw a small bunny hop into the shade garden beneath the maple tree. Out into the yard I went like old Mr. McGregor after Peter Rabbit.

     “Don’t you even think about nibbling my spotted dead nettle for elevenses,” I said to the young rascal who was poised to do just that, “if you’re hungry, go eat the bleedin’ heart.” I guess I made “bleedin’ heart” sound too much like swearing; off he scooted without even a backward glance. I’m not worried about offending him, it isn’t the first time I have had to shoo him or his relatives out of my garden.

     I thought we had compromised on just eating the lovely pink blooms off the dead nettle and leaving the lovely green foliage alone. I thought it was understood that the hosta at the end of the row next to the burning bush was available for grazing if anyone was hankering for greens—there is still some left over from last summer. And if I have to sacrifice my bleeding heart, so be it. Most years it begins to look shabby by early summer so I don't mind replacing it.

     I used fox urine as a deterrent last summer, but try leaving your windows open on a curtain-blowing day with fox urine in the garden. Unpleasant. I put chicken wire around the three burning bushes on the north side of the house to give them a chance to recuperate from last year’s devastation. Effective but Unsightly. Some folks down the road have stuffed old clothes to look like a man and woman and set them side-by-side under a tree in the front yard. Creepy. Still, I am thinking of doing the same to see if it will give the greedy critters pause before bellying up to the buffet.

     Even so, I hope the coyotes we’ve seen running through the neighborhood leave the bunnies under my deck alone. They’ve been living alongside us for twenty years now, and I’ve grown fond of them. They must be the great grandchildren of the originals, but I call them all Shadow, Whisper or Twitchet because there is no telling them apart. And thank Providence for small blessings; they leave my favorite flower, the dwarf blue columbine, alone. They must sense that messing with it would bring out the McGregor in me.