The Journey Part of Journey Cake

My mom had surgery two days ago, vertebrae-fusing back surgery that went very well (she was walking within four hours!). I wanted to bring her some breakfast yesterday. We all have our go-to recipes, right? Quick, easy, tried and true? One of mine is Johnny Cake, also known as Cornbread, also known historically as Journey Cake. I love my recipe. Last summer I added fresh summer sweet corn sliced right off the cob and made it into “corn muffins at their best.”

This morning I wanted to make it in my cast iron pan instead. The crust comes out so well this way. If you look carefully, you can see the steam rising from this piece I cut for my own breakfast.

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Some things you stop seeing after a while, but when I looked at the recipe, I realized anew that it is called Johnny Cake. That’s how I knew it as a child. “Corn Bread” is parenthetical.

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Somewhere along the line, “Journey Cake” morphed into “Johnny Cake.

I’m glad it did. No way could my version rightly be called or even thought of as a cake you could make on a journey. Think covered wagon journey. Think doing-the-best-we-can-with-limited-supplies. On such a journey (at least in my 21st-century imagination) the chances of having flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, eggs, milk, butter AND maple syrup at the same time, to say nothing of the proper pans and cooking fire/oven, seem super slim. Maybe they had a cow tied to the wagon (they would need her when they arrived in Oregon); maybe they had some laying hens, though I expect those became dinner when wild game was hard to find. But baking powder, maple syrup, white flour – no way. I expect they felt right grateful to have cornmeal, water (maybe milk), some salt and a little fat for frying the cakes (think cornmeal pancakes).

I for one am very glad to have all the ingredients at my fingertips.

I get to:

1. soften the butter in the microwave to the perfect melted-but-not-hot stage (30 seconds, then work the back of a spoon against any parts remotely still solid);

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2. put the pan in the preheating oven with a pat of butter in it, let the butter melt, then tilt the pan this way and that to evenly distribute the hot, melted butter and feel the solidity of the pan, watch the different paths the butter takes, admire the ways the light glistens. (We all have our thrills, okay?)

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3. look at the eight ingredients in a bowl, as yet unmixed, and anticipate their utter transformation;

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4. blob the batter into the pan and think about what happens to it in the heat, how the batter finds the corners and changes consistency during baking (I do smooth it out a bit before putting it in the oven);

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5. enjoy the lovely crust, buttery because of the butter I melted in the pan and as dark as I choose to let it become.

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Step by step a thing takes form, simply becomes. It doesn’t matter if it’s the cornbread I’ve made for years or the Ligurian Lemon Cake I found on a found on a fellow blogger’s site recently (doesn’t that look good?!). It doesn’t matter if it’s a friendship or a project. Step by step we walk our unboring paths, touching and serving one another in ways we know and in ways we don’t know.

There were numerous high points with yesterday’s breakfast, including softening the butter, tilting the pan, blobbing the batter. Another was the steaming piece on my plate, fresh out of the oven, drizzled with honey. The best was packing up a basket to take with me to Mom at the hospital. Other people bring flowers – daffodils, begonias and a sweet pink rose adorn her room – but I bring food. How many chances like this do you get? To bring someone a piece of comfort, a taste of home?

I wish the person who wove my pie basket could see how its size and shape were perfect for a large square of my Johnny Cake/Journey Cake/Corn Bread (whatever you want to call it), a wedge of quiche, a couple of real and pretty plates, silverware wrapped in soft napkins, butter in a little dish, jam in a jar and a small cotton towel to serve as a tablecloth. “I feel like I’m in a hotel,” Mom said. My local hospital is great, but they have their limitations 😊.

For me, the journey part of Journey Cake – the journey part of anything – is the fascinating (if at times difficult and maddening) step-by-step that we experience every day.  Any journey has something (or someone) about it that’s wondrous or intriguing or funny or satisfying or lovely. I do not want to overlook that something. The process gets you – if we may borrow images from our pioneer forebears – down the next path, across the next river, over the next mountain. I want to go today where I haven’t been before, do things I couldn’t do yesterday, learn something new, see something in a fresh way. I also want to relish the familiar, embrace those I love, hold onto what matters. Yesterday I got to bake something I’ve baked a thousand times before, enjoy the process, present it in a different setting and watch it work its same old magic – oh, yay and oh, yum!!

Mom is in the hospital after back surgery. She’s not overly comfortable but is facing the mountain in front of her like the champ she is. Each little part of her journey, each big challenge and each little victory, makes her stronger in some way, better equipped for the next step. Whatever I can do, each tiny way I get to serve her – these become steps in my journey, the very journey that I will one day walk through in my memory, like a movie of my life. I want to enjoy the show!

Fraud Follow-Up

Last week I wrote about the scam I experienced with my cottage. A guy wrote, posing as a traveler. He asked to pay directly through his company and I went along. It didn’t smell right when he didn’t confirm an arrival time with me, nor send the check he said he would. When he said the check was going to be for more than the rental amount and he needed me to remit the $2500 balance so that he and his son Nathan could buy the tickets for their flights (the day of their supposed arrival!), I was done.

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I told him I wasn’t doing that. Clearly the scammers have other people to prey on and turned their attention elsewhere because I didn’t hear from him again after that…

…until six days later when he said the check had been sent.

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I did not respond and was out of town, but sure enough something arrived. Sandy stopped at my mailbox that day, saw the card that said something was waiting at the post office for pick-up, and went to retrieve it. When the postal clerk went to get it from the back, she returned saying she could not hand it over because it had been flagged as possible fraud and would need to be sent to the postmaster.

The very kind postmaster called me today and confirmed that every bit of this piece of mail was fraudulent: the check itself, the return address, even the printed-out postage sticker itself. “Looks like a home computer job,” he said. “We see this all the time, but not so much in regard to rentals.”

Of course I feel stupid and wish I could say I was smart enough to see through it earlier. I should have taken the time to carefully consider what was happening. There are reasons I didn’t.

1. When the weird texts were happening, I was in a hurry, I didn’t feel good and I had an appointment so was trying to rush out the door.

2. I did not want to judge him for poor English (“this tickets money”) because there are lots of reasons for imperfect English.

3. The cottage is my livelihood – I want and need the business.

4. I stand more often in the benefit-of-the-doubt, innocent-until-proven-guilty camp. I want to believe people are good. Most of them are. But not all.

I still feel stupid. Four and a half years I’ve been renting my cottage. Four and a half years of wonderful guests and wonderful experiences. Now this. All I can say is Be on the lookout – scammers are out there looking for money any way they can get it.

Yummy Yammy Cheesy Galette

When you first come home from having been away for a week, there’s not much in the fridge. But I did not feel like going shopping yesterday or today, and anyway I was playing tennis this morning, then flipping the cottage, then waiting for guests to arrive – honeymooners(!), repeat visitors Sally and Ryan – how wonderful to see them again!! I was wrapped up in Sarah’s book for many hours as well (while waiting for Sally and Ryan), so it was after 6pm by the time I thought about dinner. Earlier I had taken a chicken out of the freezer, thinking to roast it, thinking we haven’t had one with a teriyaki sauce in a while and that might be nice, but it was too late for that. Maybe tomorrow.

Hmmm, very limited choices then. I could always make mac and cheese but didn’t feel like that either. I said to Samuel, “Can you make a dough?” He is good at making dough even if he would rather amuse us by hemming Coco in with pillows and blankets on the couch, from which she did not care to move so we concluded that she liked it.

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By “dough” he knew I meant a pizza dough. I knew we didn’t have any mozzarella so a conventional pizza was out of the question, but my daughter Marie has a recipe for a savory galette that came into my mind. Only it’s been five months or so since I made it at her house and couldn’t remember it well.

I remembered her recipe started with a pizza-crust-type crust. Thus the dough I asked Samuel to make.

I remembered it had butternut squash, but I didn’t know I had one/forgot I had one/didn’t see the one I had till I was all done. But I knew I had yams. That would work.

I remembered it had fresh sage. I knew I didn’t have that, but I do (always) have dried sage.

I remembered it had fontina cheese. I knew I didn’t have that, but I did (miraculously, considering how nearly-empty my cheese bin is right now) have asiago. That would work.

I knew it didn’t have ricotta cheese on it, but I had some of that, and thought it might be good to include.

It might have been good to look up Marie’s recipe then and there but I didn’t (or I would have added more onions).

Samuel made the dough, a regular pizza dough. He grated a big chunk of asiago. I cut up two big sweet potatoes (a.k.a. yams) into small cubes and put them in my cast iron skillet in butter and a bit of water over a medium flame to roast (forgetting that Marie’s recipe calls for the squash to be oven-roasted), then remembered the half onion sitting in my fridge and something in me said Add the onion to the roasting yams. I sliced it up thinly, added it to the yams in the pan and covered the pan till the yams were soft, stirring them once or twice with a good spatula; they were done in about ten minutes.

Samuel rolled out the dough, I put olive oil on it and spread it all over the surface with my hand (just enough to cover the surface, not enough to pool). He then salted and peppered the surface. I put small dollops of ricotta cheese on next, using teaspoons to push grape-sized blobs onto the dough (you see the white blobs?), reasonably spaced. Cooked yam cubes and onion slices went on next (well distributed of course), then some dried sage, then the asiago.

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Into a hot (450F) oven the two galettes went for a good half hour until the crust was nice and brown. It was totally delicious. The combination of cheeses with yams with the sage and onion – oh, yummy! Did I need two pieces?? I enjoyed two pieces! And the crust this time! The crust was especially good. We think it might be because Sandy bought King Arthur bread flour last time I was out of flour, which has more protein, which is supposed to make a better crust. We agree it is better. If you can, buy this kind of flour for your crust.

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After we chowed down on this delicious stuff while enjoying Iron Man 2, I found Marie’s recipe, which I will happily share because 1. It has actual measurements and 2. It serves as a springboard to my altered version. You will see that the “pastry” for Marie’s Butternut Squash and Carmelized Onion Galette is not a pizza dough. I guess I forgot that too. There are various ways I veered from this recipe. But the basic idea is quite the same.

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It all goes to show that you can look and see what’s in your fridge and maybe not have to go to the store in order to make something yummy for dinner!

A Mad Dash and the Value of Fantasy

At the end of the day yesterday, a beautiful March day in Vermont that climbed past 50 degrees F, a day we had watched the ice in the Winooski River breaking away in pieces…

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…Mom and I were scheduled to fly back home.

When I am sitting in an airport waiting for my flight, and in taxis the plane I will soon be on, and off come the passengers who have arrived at their destination, I feel envious as they walk past me. I want to be them in the sense of I want to be arriving, not leaving. I want the travel part of my trip to be over. It’s great to spend time with the people I love who live far away, it’s good for the soul to see other hillsides and travel other roads and gain new mental images of the ever-changing world, but I wish I could snap my fingers at the end of that and just be home.

Some trips are smooth and easy. The flights run on time and are reasonably unbumpy, and there is enough time to get from Plane A to Plane B without undue hurry or worry. Coming home yesterday was not that kind of trip.

In Burlington Mom and I heard over the PA system that anyone with a connection in Philadelphia would miss their connection because of weather issues, so they might as well find accommodation overnight and try again today. Our connection was in Washington DC, but what weather could affect Philly so as to delay or cancel all connecting flights but not affect DC?? We don’t know and can’t know, but the announcement did not make us feel better about getting on a plane.

Then we were told that the plane that would take us to DC would be landing in Burlington at the same time as it was supposed to take off to DC, and in fact it landed more than ten minutes after that, delaying our start by a good half hour. Try as they did to make up for the lost time, we landed in DC at the same time as our connector was supposed to be taking off. That is, we arrived in DC at 10pm and our subsequent flight to Cville was scheduled to take off at 10pm. We were in row 6, which got us off the plane quicker than if we had been in row 22, but still I had serious doubts. When I showed the flight attendant my boarding pass for the next flight and asked her if we were going to make it, she said to ask the person at the bottom of the stairs. He said You will make it.

What does he know? I led Mom, who is not walking fast these days, across the tarmac toward the door he indicated, and immediately found someone who looked like she worked there and said, “I need a wheelchair for my mother!” I realize in retrospect I did not say it calmly and politely. I did not ask. I said it emphatically, being worried (very worried by this point) not only about our flight but also about Mom going faster than she should or could. To their credit, they moved fast to get her a wheelchair, being prodded, possibly, by the panic in my voice. We went as quickly as possible – the wheelchair driver assuring me all the way that we would make it – all of one gate past the one where we disembarked, watched the guy at the desk say into a phone, “Two more for Charlottesville” (as in “Don’t close the door just yet”) and hustled out the door, across the tarmac and onto the plane. Then they closed the door.

Whew! Once we were in our seats, the reality of the close call hit us and we both felt very grateful for the help we got. Mom worried that her inability to move fast had added to the stress, but I told her that having an 84-year-old, less-than-speedy travel companion came in handy. If nothing else, it called attention to our plight. We were on the plane and that’s all that mattered. Time to relax, right?

You bet. Time to resume The Turning by Sarah Silvey, a new fantasy novel I can hardly put down. The part of me that loves invented characters and their corresponding powers, deeds and foibles – yes, the same woman who loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Aquaman, The Avengers and all the rest – switched on as soon as I started reading it. Sarah’s fabulous characters and intriguing storyline picked up my exhausted self and plunked it squarely into an imaginary world with far greater challenges and gave me somewhere else to reside temporarily after the harrowing gate-to-gate mad dash. What is making our flight to Charlottesville by the skin of our teeth compared to trying to stop an evil “Other” who can obliterate a small town by commanding the river to overtake it in a flash flood?

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The Turning starts with a young woman named Sienna who is vaguely aware of her unusual abilities, including being able to know what people are thinking. Her village is small, her job of ferrying people across the river is simple, but trouble starts when the blue-cloaked woman with a frightening aura crosses. Enter a brave knight of the Darcean Order who cannot stop the flood but saves Sienna from it, mutants with creepy eyes and grossly misshapen bodies, ordinary folk who chatter cheerfully and care about their companions and a rat-faced villain gathering the mutants for purposes of subterfuge, and you can imagine my current dilemma. I’m home, yes, my bags are unpacked, yes, but it’s time for dinner and all I want to do is read! Brennan, the knight, explained the backstory this way:

…“He was the first Other. Fifteen hundred years ago, Azar united the lands to the east of the desert with his power. He named it Azaria, and together he and his queen ruled the people, masquerading as gods.

“Nobody denies that the things they did were magnificent. Through their power, they made the roads and buildings, many of which were so strong that they are still standing today. By their influence, the yield of crops magnified a hundredfold. Nobody had to work; they only had to worship the Azars and obey their rules.

“Lots of people see these relics and yearn for the wealth and glory of the past, but they have forgotten the Azars’ cruelty. They murdered people for entertainment, made them into slaves, sacrificed them as their divine right. They were depraved. People were forbidden to read and write, to question their god-kings, to meet in secret. Others were employed by Azar to watch the people for rebellion, and any independence of mind or deed was found and crushed. The easy lifestyle and propaganda promoted by the Azars made the people bland and ignorant.

“The Others were insatiable. Masses of people were slain in battles for supremacy between members of the Azar family. Others ruled the cities as well; they played mayor or magistrate, wallowing in luxury and using their power to work their way on people.

“For five hundred years the descendants of the Azars ruled Azaria in blood and wealth, until an assassin found his way into their palace undetected and killed the last king and queen where they slept in their beds. The empire fell apart. Without their gods, the people were lost. They lived in the houses that still remained, but they didn’t remember how to work or think or fend for themselves. Lots of people died, but slowly they learned to survive on their own again, by their own rules, through honest means.

“Today people look at the skeletons of these buildings and they fantasize. They hear tales of gods that walked among men, abundant food, easy lifestyles, and they yearn for those days to be back again. But below the earth, where they cannot see, are the skeletons of the people whom these so-called gods trampled in their lust and greed.”

The evil empire has fallen, its inhabitants are “free again, along with all the responsibility and suffering which that entailed,” but their own history, their own shackles, their own pain, which should guide them to create a better tomorrow, has “drifted into the mythology of the gods. Azar’s name and his power are all the truth that is remembered.” Sienna wonders, “How can people have forgotten something so important?”

Indeed! Why do people forget what’s important? Bravo to Sarah, a fine young writer who gives us not only an engaging story but also a striking window into the risks of allowing ourselves to be led by those who do not, despite appearances, have our interests in mind, but rather, strictly and only, their own power and gain. Oh, and don’t forget how we ourselves, with whatever we uniquely bring to the table, can affect the outcome. Will Sienna develop her own powers and help Brennan take down the evil Others? I hope so, but how will she do it? I don’t know yet, but I suspect I’ll be up till all hours tonight finding out how the story plays out. You’ve got my attention, Sarah, and your wonderfully written story not only entertains me, it conjures up the parallels we all face.

Is there evil in our world too? Undeniably. Are we, to our ultimate detriment, being led? Sometimes. Can we battle all the wrongs? Hardly. Can we think for ourselves, develop our own strengths and avoid some of the downsides of those who would rule us? Of course we can.

May we never forget what’s important and always work for good. And may a good book always serve to take us to worlds we would otherwise not go, and in doing so, help us relax, make us think and/or bring us a fresh perspective on ourselves and our own world. Thank you, Sarah.

A George Bailey Moment (Straw Bale House: Stairs)

When all your ducks are in a row, when you are exactly where you want to be and you feel strong, healthy and content, it’s wonderful. Take away any of those factors – a preferred location, optimal strength, good health or contentment – and the picture changes. For instance, here I am in beautiful Vermont spending precious time with dear family and friends, and oh, I wish I felt better.

Yesterday I woke up to a nasty headache. The first thing in my head was Bother! That’s going to get in the way of helping Lincoln with those stairs. Then I thought, Oh, the stairs, he’s building the stairs today, wonderful!

While Rise and Eppie were with me last week during their school break, Lincoln had walled in the bedrooms upstairs in their straw bale house and moved beds and dressers up there. He did this by way of a ladder, this ladder. Here is Eppie beginning her descent on it.

 

 

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Don’t ask me how he got those heavy things up there. He did. And the girls came home to their new bedroom which, as you might surmise, they could reach by way of said ladder. When I said Be careful to Eppie about it the first day back, she said calmly, “Oma, I’ve done this many times,” as she carefully went down.

I have confidence in their surefootedness when they are paying attention. But perhaps you have experience with children who sometimes get distracted. I do. I’m not sure why those boards are sticking out in front of Eppie like that (they don’t belong there), but there’s a rather large unblocked edge up there too. Need I say more? Also, I am not overly comfortable on ladders myself and guess where the bathroom is in this house. So when I first arrived on Sunday I suggested to Lincoln that stairs, soon, would be a good idea. He was not particularly interested in building them just now, having other aspects of this massive project in mind. I might have suggested it more than once and from several different angles. Lo and behold (thank God!) he decided to make them.

The wood for the hemlock stringers was out in the snow, but he pulled it in, scraped it off and brought it inside. He pulled out his computer and fine-tuned his design and measurements. He began notching the 3x12s, which were my happy job to sand with his marvelous Mirka Deros pad sander. By about lunchtime yesterday they were ready.

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After we prepared the place for the landing and the three bottom stairs (right about where Lincoln‘s standing), he moved the long stringers. These are not lightweight.

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Once he secured them in their rightful places, we (i.e., he with me marginally helping) cut and trimmed the treads. More Mirka Deros sanding – what a fabulous tool – to make the edges un-sharp, and the staircase took shape.

There’s a fine line in woodworking between precision on the one hand and as-good-as-it’s-going-to-get on the other, but sometimes static pressure can nudge a slightly twisted board a little closer to the pencil mark it is supposed to line up with. The right-hand stringer was less than optimally cooperative, and Lincoln couldn’t have it that way, but he was satisfied after the clamp did its work.

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By dinnertime he had all treads in place and screwed down (let’s hope they don’t dry too fast and warp), as well as railings upstairs and the ladder back in the barn. It was impossible to get a good photo, but a person can now get upstairs without having to climb a ladder and can be up there without worrying about falling from that height. And if you are the Oma, you can relax a bit about the little ones playing up there.

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During all of the construction prior to building the stairs, no one had fallen or come close to falling – and the planks were way less stable than the floor up there is now. Chances are very good that if months more had passed with only the ladder in place, all would have been fine. I probably worry too much. I don’t know. That’s where George Bailey comes in.

In the classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is continually frustrated, continually wishing he was doing something else, in his case traveling the world or building big, important things. After he decides that he has wasted his life and the only way to help his family is to absent himself (permanently, by jumping off a bridge), he gets a miraculous look at what his world would look like had he not been in it. His brother would have died, Mr. Gower would have gone to prison, Nick would have become mean, Mary would have stayed alone, Violet would have gone down the wrong path and his uncle would have ended up in the insane asylum.

George had no idea what his presence accomplished, what his everyday actions – bumbling as they were – meant to the people and the community around him, what calamities those actions prevented, what good (and exponential good) they brought.

When I woke up with a headache two days ago, I remembered the stairs but chided myself for perhaps having had too much to say about the need for them. It’s not my house and Lincoln should proceed as he deems necessary and appropriate. But George Bailey reminded me that maybe, just maybe, I am here, right now, this week, for a reason. Something in me said Stairs would be good. Stairs should be next. Maybe that matters for reasons I will never know. Maybe it doesn’t.

Next time you need to push yourself a little to be somewhere when it would be easier to not be there, think about George. Maybe someone needs your smile, or is stronger because you are with them, or makes a choice that is somehow significant (even if you never know how) because of your presence. Maybe you are the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Maybe your vote tips the scales, or your solution solves the problem, or your help allows a thing that couldn’t happen otherwise. 

We can never know what might have been had we not been there. We can never know that because of our being there, X happened instead of Y, or X didn’t happen at all, or Y was more likely to happen. All I know is, stair-making with Lincoln gave me a fresh understanding that where we are makes a difference.

 

 

A Cottage Scam

I have a beautiful cottage on my property that I rent out to travelers. This work is perfect for me. I’ve always loved having guests, preparing the space nicely for them, making them feel welcome and at home. The cottage is separate from my house but close enough that I can be there to greet people when they come, give them a personalized introduction to the property and assist with any needs while they are there – ice cubes, a spice they would like for the dinner they’re making but forgot to bring, a brief conversation about what’s so special in this area. For four and a half years guests have come mostly through Airbnb, sometimes privately. Overall it’s been a fabulous experience and I have met some of the most wonderful people.

The cottage sits a mile off the interstate and is – like my house – in the big woods. It’s secluded, quiet and private, with chickens to watch for amusement, a garden to stroll through and a private trail to the beaver pond, and it’s only ten minutes to town, close to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and wonderful local wineries and breweries. In fall, winter and early springtime you can the mountains off in the distance; in summertime you can’t.

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Sunsets can be pretty awesome too.

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Inside there’s a woodstove and an amazing wall of windows…

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…coffered ceilings and a neat kitchen.

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Upstairs a cozy sleeping area.

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Recently I was approached about a private arrangement. The man said he was traveling with his son, asked for certain dates and needed to make payment “by sending you a company check or certified check.” I texted him back and he responded by thanking me and saying he would send me tracking information for the payment. Maybe I shouldn’t, probably I shouldn’t, but so far I trusted.

Whether we think about it or not, we trust all the time. And we trust a lot of people we don’t know. We trust the food we eat in restaurants to have been prepared by cooks who care about quality and cleanliness. We trust the airplane pilot to get us from Point A to Point B without crashing. We trust the auto mechanic not to charge us for something that’s wrong (that he supposedly fixed) when it isn’t.

There’s a fine line in the world of trust. I want to believe the best in everyone – benefit of the doubt, all that. Most people are good and honest. But some people mean us harm. Some want our money.

A few weeks ahead of time, I asked about arrival time. He said there was “a mix-up in the payment sent to you.” Hmmm. He continued, “I was supposed to receive two separate payment one for you and one for my travel agent, but unfortunately the whole sum of these two payments was issued on one check in your name and sent to you.”

This had a whiff of bad (feel free to chide me right here) but I would not be opposed to receiving a check, waiting for it to clear, then sending back the part that is not for me. Mistakes happen. “Thanks,” he said with a smiley face. “I’ll get back to you with the tracking info.”

The day before the expected arrival, I had no check, no tracking information and (no surprise) no good feeling. When I inquired, he said, “I feel very bad about the situation. My vacation planner didn’t put the check out on time. It will deliver to your address later today.” And then (and this really didn’t smell right), “Can we sort out the payment issue first? You can have the dates blocked for me. I’ll bare [sic] the loss for two days until the check clears your bank. And I’ll reschedule my arrival for [two days later]. Sorry for the inconvenience. Thanks for understanding.”

By this point I was confused and in a hurry but strongly suspecting a scam and highly intrigued as to how he would continue with this. The next bit clinched it: “But there’s a problem. He’s supposed to use the extra $2500 included in the check to book our flights so we can take off. But the check is already on its way and would arrive tonight. But if you can help me quickly remit the sum of $2500 to him right now, I’ll be very happy. Then when the check clears, you have the full amount including the rental fee. I’ll be very glad if you can do this. I’ll be very grateful.”

Ah, now I’m supposed to send money before I receive the check. Sure. And I’m not supposed to wonder how they could, at this point, not have tickets for their flights. So we can take off?!

“There’s no way we could come without this tickets money. And that’s why I’m suggesting you remit the funds to him. Then have yourself reimburse[d] when the check clears the bank. My son is already disappointed and I feel very bad right now.” [two sad faces]

This tickets money? Seriously?

These last few texts all took place within a very short period of time while I was madly trying to get out the door to an appointment. I told him plainly I was not going to write a check for $2500 and got going. Needless to say, no response came, no check, no tracking info, no guests. I lost business but gained understanding of yet another way scammers try to fool ordinary, trusting people. They must sit together, scheme together: Which business can we target next?… Individuals who rent out their homes! Sure, why not?!

They got me on the hook, but they didn’t reel me in. And I’m a smarter fish now.

Girls and Aprons: Straight Out of Another Time

Two little girls. My world is more wonderful this week because Rise and Eppie are here. By the time they are six and four, there’s more they can do on their own. I do not have to accompany them to the chicken coop every time, but can suggest there might be eggs, and off they go.

If you look carefully, you can see the chickens at the door of their run waiting for Rise. Food! Food! Humans approaching! They bring food! Not this time, ladies!

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That’s my hat she’s wearing, and she loves it because it’s purple. The love of purple applies universally. In other words, if it’s purple, she loves it. This one is especially appealing because besides being purple, there’s a flower on the side. She likes it so much, she wears it indoors sometimes.

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(Yes, that’s Edward Tulane sitting on the table next to Rise on my raccoon skin. They loved reading through it with me the first two or three days they were here. Imagine, as soon as Edward was thrown overboard, Rise said, “I want him to get back to the little girl!” Do you remember what happens at the end of the story? Do you think the author anticipated that a six-year-old would want that?)

On another day, a colder day, Rise got the first 13 eggs of the day and Eppie went out later by herself to get one more. (Don’t rush me! Don’t rush me! one hen said.) Yes, another hat of mine under her hood. If you are an Oma, it is best to have a selection of hats available when the little girls come to visit.

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There’s nothing like a good Ravensburger puzzle to occupy Eppie for a few minutes. She had both 20-piece puzzles together in no time. (I have a puzzle with chickens on it. Imagine that!) I hope kids everywhere are still doing puzzles. 

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I hope they are still eating apples too. I cut up two different varieties and put them in separate bowls and suggested they might do a taste-test to see how they compared. Rise said one was tart and one was sweet. Fair enough. Looks like they each found a favorite.

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Eppie likes reading aloud whether anyone else is listening or not. My mom gave them a marvelous reprinted Dick and Jane set for Christmas, which has adorable drawings and easy story lines. Here she is reading Green Eggs and Ham without prompting. Once in a while she needs help with a word. But only once in a while.

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“Oma, I found paint downstairs…” Ah, yes, children’s paint, supposedly washes out of clothes. But let’s not take that chance. I pulled out the aprons I still had from when my own kids were little, set an old shower curtain liner on the floor and gave them gloves to wear (which did not work on Eppie at all and I had to take them off and take my chances on how well the paint would wash off skin – it did!).

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After this, they did not want to paint again but Rise wore the apron nonstop. I didn’t realize till later that she was wearing it in this photo of all of us.

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Which got me to thinking. Of course. She should have one of her own for when she goes back to her house. They both should have one. While Eppie was sleeping one day, Rise and I went into my newly reorganized fabric scrap boxes (I knew I did all that last week for a reason!) and found some pieces that would be big enough for an apron. Rise settled immediately on a pale pink calico, but we didn’t want to decide for Eppie, so we found several. Eppie chose blue over green, which was a surprise.

Today was a good day to sew. While they played quietly in another room, I got to work, modeling the new ones after the old one. The girls were right there to measure when I needed, so it was easy. Waist to knees and height and width of bib, that’s all I need. The rest was gathers and ties. The girls were a little too quiet at one point. Hmmm. I found an abandoned mess of crayons later. When I asked about it, they said, “Oh, we like to clean!” Good thing, because I’m not cleaning it up.

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They were tickled with the aprons. And I was tickled when Kim said (in response to this photo I sent her), “Oh gosh – straight out of another time.” Indeed they are, though I didn’t think about the fashion era they represent until she said that. You see, girls (these girls anyway) love twirling, and if the skirt is full, the twirl is greatly enhanced. And the ties are long enough to make a bow in the back. Rise always wants a bow.

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If you know anyone who wants one (and I don’t mean Coco!), just let me know 😊 All I need is measurements!

Any Berry Tea Cake

Last week I had a request for my cottage from a guest who has been here several times before. Crystal’s note included: My daughter and myself absolutely looove that cake you make. It’s my birthday and my friends are trying to bring me to your place tonight. I will pay extra if you have one of those cakes laying around! I know what cake she means.

There’s always something freshly baked under the glass dome waiting for my guests, and sometimes it’s this Strawberry Ripple Tea Cake. (I am not sure what the difference is between a coffee cake and a tea cake, but we’ll just put that point of pondering in the category of Things I Don’t Need to Know.) The recipe came from a hardcover cookbook sitting on my shelf called Old-Fashioned Home Baking, back when (decades ago!) you got recipes either from someone you knew or from some printed material – usually a cookbook or a magazine.

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If you know me even a little, you know that I am all for tweaking/simplifying. This recipe, for instance, calls for making a thickened mixture using strawberries or raspberries. I might have done that the first time, but then I realized it was basically jam. Henceforth, guess what, jam it is! How much simpler and just as yummy.

Also it calls for one large baking pan, but why not two smaller pans? Why not muffin tins? I’ve tried it numerous ways, and with strawberry jam, raspberry jam and this week (on account of a bargain jar) blueberry jam. All good! This recipe is a keeper, and simpler than it looks.

Mix together the 2 ¼ cups flour and ¾ cup sugar. And whatever you do, use butter, not margarine! (I wonder when decent recipe books stopped suggesting margarine as an alternative…) Use a knife to cut up the cold butter in the bowl with the flour and sugar, then a pastry blender till it resembles “coarse crumbs.” My half-cup set aside looked like this.

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To the flour/sugar/butter that remains in your bowl, add the baking powder, baking soda, egg, salt and buttermilk (or sour milk, which is nothing more than milk with a teaspoon or so of vinegar added to it, no kidding; vinegar will sour the milk in no time).

Stir this up, just enough to blend. Overbeating will not make a better cake.

Here’s where, in a hurry, I forgot one of the key steps of this recipe. You are supposed to put most of the batter in the greased (and in this case springform) pan(s), then the fruit, then blobs of the remaining batter, then the crumbs. I just spread the batter in my two pans…

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…added the blueberry jam (about ¼ cup per cake, a little more would not have hurt it)…

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…spread the blueberry jam…

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…and topped it with crumbs.

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It would have been better to mix that jam into the batter a bit, even swirling it in with the blade of a round-tipped knife, before putting the crumbs on top, even if I bypassed the blobbing step. But as my sister would say, “Oh, well!”

The forgetfulness of the baker aside, the result was not so bad.

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It makes a terrific cake for someone who is having a stressful time, or for a neighbor who is always doing kind things for no seeming reason, or just because for people you love, or (oh, right!) for yourself! It is not overly sweet or messy, not trying to be splashy or gorgeous. It’s simply light and moist and delightful with the freshness of fruit and the tender buttery crumbs. It says, “How about a cup of tea or coffee, a slice of this goodness and a few minutes of relaxation?” Some days, sometimes, that’s just perfect.

 

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*Better Homes and Gardens Old-Fashioned Home Baking, 1990, Meredith Corporation, Des Moines, Iowa

I’ll Get Around To It

How many times have we set something aside that needs doing and thought: Yeah, someday, not today, but someday I’ll get around to it. Life is busy, we are bombarded with demands constantly, “stuff” clutters our attics, basements and closets. The jobs of sorting, organizing, fixing and refurbishing often don’t make it to the top of the list. Yet some things are hard to throw away. Some get buried, covered, boxed up or otherwise hidden. Some are just waiting for their day.

Ten years ago I worked at a restaurant where Laguiole steak knives were part of the tableware, appearing only when someone ordered an expensive steak. The type we had were sleek, elegant, wooden-handled and costlier per knife than the steak. I remember the servers carefully polishing the sharp blades and setting them side-by-side in perfect rows on napkin-lined trays in preparation for dinner service. Laguiole’s signature bumblebee, affixed at the uppermost portion of the handle, seemed to all of us a mark of authenticity.

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(Little did we know that there are no regulations prohibiting the use of the Laguiole name or bee on cutlery. Imitations abound. Chances are decent that the ones I have are not authentic knives from the village of Laguiole in the department of Aveyron in France. For my knives and their purpose, does this matter? Probably not.)

If you have ever worked in a restaurant of any kind, you know that some people are more careful than others with plates, glasses and silverware. Some are gentle, some bang things around. Some have a better sense of the replacement cost of such supplies. Some understand that certain items are best washed by hand rather than put through the high heat and pressure of an automated dishwasher. Some forget they have been told not to put the wooden-handled Laguiole steak knives in the dishwasher.

Ours got bad. Their fine finishes were blasted off and they began to look shabby. A restaurant serving roasted rack of herb-cured lamb with pomme purée or king salmon “sous vide” or classic iced grand marnier soufflé cannot expect guests to use shabby knives. As a manager was about to throw them away, I asked if I could have them. Sure, he said, why not?

I promptly wrapped them in a napkin, bound it with a rubber band, brought them home with the very good intention of refinishing those handles, put them in a drawer and forgot about them for ten years or so.

Oh, look, those old steak knives! While rummaging around in a drawer recently for something else I hadn’t been able to locate in a while, I came upon the knives. They looked as shabby as I remembered, but my intention was revived. Today seemed like a good day to remedy their finish. (Perhaps the doll mender from the story of Edward Tulane was whispering in my ear?)

It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon. Eppie was sleeping off a sickness, Rise was amusing herself with learning how to braid, practicing with shoelaces and clothesline, which work well for this purpose, in case you wondered.

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I had a few moments for a little job so I went to my shelf of paints where a can of marine grade polyurethane sits front and center. In the last few weeks I used it on some funny little garden signs that are not yet finished and I lightly sanded and then refinished the ash handle of a very fine Smith and Hawkin garden fork that Peggy gave me (and doesn’t that look nice now, thank you, Peggy!).

I nabbed the poly, found some super-fine-grit sandpaper, laid out the steak knives, prepared a small old brush by snipping off the tips of its bristles (that somehow had dried paint clumped on them),

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sanded and dusted the knife handles, then devised a way to prop them to dry. A cooling rack set up high and anchored with a bear-shaped jar of vinegar worked beautifully. Imagine my delight as I brushed the first strokes of poly on the parched wood. Look at that rich color!

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Polyurethane can bring out the gorgeous grain in wood the way salt brings out the amazing flavor in food. See the difference between done and not-yet-done in another way? These two are propped in my makeshift drying rack.

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Completing all five gave me a sense of accomplishment that the ten-year delay on this job only heightened.

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There will always be more undone than done in my world, always more to do than I have time to do, but the truth today is that I DO sometimes get around to the things (some of them anyway, a small fraction of them anyway) about which I seem to be always saying: I’ll Get Around To It. And when I do, it’s a victory like no other.

Do I need these steak knives? No. Would anyone else like them? Maybe. Was this a necessary task? Hardly. But seeing the wood go from sad, rough and dull to smooth, shiny and richly colored was a thrill. Knowing the knives have life and use yet in them and that someone may be glad to have them makes me smile. Making a checkmark on the mental list I keep is also satisfying (even if I did forget I had them!).

Remember that old saying “You can’t please all of the people all the time”? Personally I think it’s ok to settle for pleasing a few people as often as I can because my experience tells me it’s better to devote my energies to fewer people for maximum effect than spread myself over many people to little effect.

Along parallel lines, I’ve also always told myself: “You can’t tackle all the little jobs all the time.” They will wait for their day. I settle for small victories when I can – a little job here, another little job there. Over time I chip away at my list, even if more things get added to it. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I sometimes even find some little treasure hidden in a box, or something I can finally bring myself to part with – like these knives that need a new home…

Anyway, now I can say I Got Around To It!

Noodle-Pillows Your Way, or Spaetzle 1-2-3

On the way to town yesterday, I was asked “Is driving easy?” by my six-year-old granddaughter Rise. It’s easy for me, I told her, because I’ve been doing it a long time. For someone who just started driving, it’s not so easy. If you make scrambled eggs every day, after a while you can have a conversation, straighten the countertop and scramble eggs at the same time. Same for anything: The more you do it, the simpler it seems.

I used to make spaetzle once in a while for a treat, but more and more I find myself reaching for the tool (this is a good one) that turns eggs-flour-salt-water into the tenderest noodle I know. They are so soft, they should be called noodle-pillows. Spaetzle is the base for a wonderful dish called Kaesespatzin (literally cheese-spaetzle or cheesy noodles), which is simply cooked and drained spaetzle layered in a bowl (three layers) with shredded, imported swiss (like Jarlsberg or Emmentaler) and topped with a lot of onions sautéed till super-soft in butter. My friend Claudia’s family ate this dish every Friday for her entire childhood – that fact all by itself used to remind me that it can’t be that hard.

Plain spaetzle are great alongside any roast that has gravy or as a side dish with just butter.

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In a nonstick pan on the second day, they roast up beautifully with a little more butter. Last week at my daughter’s I used a can of pureed pumpkin instead of the water in the recipe – you get light orangy-colored spaetzle with a mild pumpkin flavor – try this with butter and tell me it’s not yummy!

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If you study the spaetzle in the two bowls, you’ll see that they are not only a different color due to pumpkin in the second, the spaetzle themselves are different. That’s because my daughter’s spaetzle maker has smaller holes (half circles). Hers is like the one on the left (below); the one I usually use (and prefer) is the one on the right.

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This week with the spaetzle I did something new. I made them as usual and combined them with the cheddar cheese sauce I make for mac and cheese (which is essentially a white sauce with Cabot cheddar added).

Spaetzle are also better for us than pasta from a box because you make the dough with eggs. Yes, the woman with 22 chickens is suggesting a use for eggs – imagine that!

What I really want to say is that making spaetzle isn’t that hard. Like anything else, do it a few times and you will develop a rhythm. They will be so easy and so delicious you will wonder why you don’t make them more often. And then you will make them more often!

The basic recipe I learned years ago used a ratio of one egg per one cup of flour. For my family I usually made three eggs and three cups of flour, then a teaspoon of salt and as much water as makes it the right consistency. (Start with a third cup of water and go from there. Don’t worry, I’m walking you through this.) But before you start making the dough, get a Dutch oven (large) pot of water going on a high flame. You need the water at the boiling point.

Over time I found I liked more eggs proportionally for the dough, more like a 4:3 ratio (eggs: cups-of-flour). If you use three (3) eggs, you will need more water. If you use four (4), you will need less. That’s why I can’t be overly specific about the amount of water.

The amount of water you add should make the dough begin coming away from the sides of the bowl, like this. (You didn’t forget the salt, right?) If the dough is too wet (too much water), it will drip through the holes of the spaetzle maker and turn into a disintegrated mess in the pot. If it is too stiff (not enough water), it will stay in a tight ball and resist going through the holes. We can’t have resistant dough now, can we? This is the regular dough.

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This is the dough made with pumpkin.

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Position your spaetzle maker on top, fill the little bucket,

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and begin sliding back and forth. The spaetzle come out through the holes and plop into the boiling water.

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If you have a friend or family member nearby who can keep the water moving with a long-handled spoon back and forth in the water alongside the spaetzle maker, that would be great. If you are by yourself, not the end of the world. Just give it a stir when you refill your bucket.

Once all the dough has gone through the holes and into the water, go to your kitchen sink, taking the spaetzle maker with you (both parts), and clean it. Trust me, you will be glad you did this before all that dough dries in the cracks. Use a little scraper rather than a rag or a sponge. The amount of time this takes, let’s say five minutes (though ten in the pot won’t hurt them), is about right for how long it takes the spaetzle to cook in the water.

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They will be looking like this in the pot. You probably will need to turn the flame down (or it might boil over and you don’t want a mess). I usually add salt to the water too, by the way, just as when I cook pasta.

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Now drain and serve in any of the above-suggested ways, or however you like.

By the way, in case you were wondering, spaetzle is pronounced shpet-zle, not spetz-le. Have fun! I’d love to know how else anyone dresses them up!