A Pumpkin Custard Irregularity

Yesterday a can of pumpkin called my name. I know January isn’t when you usually think of pumpkin. Most canned pumpkin sold in the US sells in the fall, not in the winter, spring or summer.* Still, I saw it sitting there in my pantry when I was looking for the wheat flour and it called my name. Pumpkin is really good for you. It’s loaded with Vitamins A and C, and a cup of it has more potassium than a banana. Plus, I was hungry, and a great recipe for pumpkin custard popped into my head. It’s from my friend Bobbe (to whom I apologize if I have abominated her recipe).

Pumpkin custard is basically pumpkin pie without the crust. Maybe not quite as rich, and you have to be willing to eat custard without crust. Granted, a pie crust is the perfect, flakey, slightly crispy compliment to the smooth, velvety custard/pie. The combo is worth the trouble…usually. But not always. Sometimes I don’t want to make a crust, or I don’t have time. Sometimes I just want the creamy part – a quick and easy mixing of ingredients and into a baking dish it goes.

Yesterday I had another idea, a new idea. I opened the can of pumpkin, then found the molasses and poured a bit in. I didn’t remember that molasses isn’t in my pumpkin custard recipe – it’s in my pumpkin pie recipe – oh well! (This is what happens when you start putting stuff in the bowl before you open the cookbook.) Plus I didn’t actually measure the molasses, so never mind about it unless you want to put a tablespoon or two in there; it won’t affect anything except to make the flavor richer. I got the brown sugar out, and then the eggs and all the other ingredients – all while contemplating a strange addition. It was breakfast-time, okay, so I can be forgiven for this I think. How about some oatmeal?

Oatmeal?? Oatmeal!! I took down my beauteous old tin (isn’t it beauteous?)

quaker oats tin cropped.jpg

and (definitely did not measure this) added two handfuls of the old-fashioned oats contained within – what I could hold in one hand twice. I stirred it all up and poured it into the 8×8” cast iron pan I had had heating up in a 375F oven with a pat of butter in it (the recipe says 350, but 375 worked just fine). I cooked it till it was set, wondering all the while if I was crazy. It’ll just be pumpkin custard with a bit of texture to it, I told myself. It takes a while for this to bake, and I was doubting myself considerably the whole time, I won’t lie. But it wasn’t half bad! Actually I was quite pleased with not-overly-sweet pumpkin flavor and the nice oatmealy texture!

pumpkin custard.jpg

This photo doesn’t come close to doing it justice, but really, if you want a twist on pumpkin custard that works for breakfast, this is worth a go! You could eat it hot, warm or cold, but I think warm is best. I was pretty excited about it, and mentioned it to Samuel when he came out from his coding-cave. He said, “You did what?!” I told him again and he said, “Mom, that’s like putting peas in bread! It just doesn’t go together!”

I said, “Frozen peas or canned peas?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Either way, both are food combinations that don’t make sense.”

I am not ready to put peas in my bread dough and see what happens any time soon. But oats in pumpkin custard isn’t that weird, is it? Let’s just call it irregular. A long time ago I read a book called Irregular People* which was about exactly what you think it would be about (and can’t we all think of someone who fits that word?!). Irregular is a very cool word anyway, even if it does, for me, conjure up images of strange and/or difficult people. I’ve decided that it applies nicely to my custard-oatmeal combination, if I may say so.

In case you are inclined to think out of the custard box and the oatmeal box, so to speak, and in case you have a can of pumpkin in your pantry that you should use before next fall, you might want to give this a whirl. Here’s the recipe from my cookbook, typed out below in case the handwriting is hard to read. With or without some oats thrown in for a little texture, enjoy!

recipe cropped.jpg

Pumpkin Custard

Preheat oven to 350F.
Combine:
1 ½ cups cooked, strained pumpkin (one 15oz/425g can)
2/3 cup brown sugar (I did not add this much, but did add some molasses)
3 beaten eggs (I did not beat mine before adding them in)
1 ½ cups scalded milk (I added it cold and it worked fine)
1 Tablespoon cornstarch (I forgot this)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (yes)
½ teaspoon ginger (yes)
¼ teaspoon each ground cloves and nutmeg (I did not add these)
(I added two handfuls old-fashioned oats)

Pour in buttered baking dish (don’t you love how the recipe assumes you know what size dish to use? I used my 8×8” cast iron)
Bake 45 minutes or till set.

 

*According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Libby’s (owned by Nestle), with 90% of the US market for canned pumpkin, sells 90% of it from October through January.

** Irregular People by Joyce Landorf Heatherley, 1982

Prickles Prove Prickly

Sometimes things do too well. All things in moderation, they say, and we generally want things to do better rather than worse, but sometimes things go crazy and require serious cutting back. Yesterday I cut back the blackberries, black raspberries and raspberries. I not only cut them back. I gave them away.

I should have known better than to move them into the garden in the first place. I should have realized that with the better soil in there, with the continual feeding they get from decomposing leaves, they would thrive. Last year already they looked like this. There is a vague way to get between the rows, but it had begun to be tricky even then.

berries 2017.jpg

This year I was too embarrassed by their overgrown tangles to take a front-on photo. They snuck into this image from when I was weeding in July. You can see there is no way in.

20180713_084901_LI.jpg

They do produce berries, lovely berries, but you could pick only the ones you could reach from the perimeter of this berry jungle. I did enjoy a few handfuls of reds and blacks. I assume the birds got the rest, though how they navigate in there beats me.

2018 berries.jpg

I am ready to throw in the towel. Maybe it’s the prickers. Do you see what I see among these cut branches?

prickers.jpg

Look carefully. One pricker after the next sticks out in random directions every inch or so. They are razor sharp and get through even the super-coated work gloves I have, the kind made for winter work – warm and thick but still movable. They stick through the plastic coating into your fingers without warning and they break off into the same plastic coating to sneak up on you and stick you later as well. Some get past and make it into a warm bed under your skin. This one I pushed out this morning. See how teeny? I think maybe different gloves would have been better.

finger (2)_LI.jpg

When I started this job, I knew there would be pain. There were a lot of branches.

pre-cut (2).jpg

Perhaps you can’t see them very well behind the bench. Let me help.

pre-cut (2)_LI.jpg

The blue lines give an idea of how tall they were, but not how many. There were way more branches than blue lines. By the time I was done I had three piles.

cut down cropped.jpg

It was a gray day and not a fun task. I had just enough energy for this and nothing more, being on the recovering end of a bad cold, but not 100% better yet. I offered the plants to Tracy, who came later to dig them out. She filled the back of her pickup with foot-high starters and will find a perfect place with lots of room between the rows to plant them. Whatever comes up after she has taken all she wants, I’ll put elsewhere, outside the fence, and let them have at it, go to town, reproduce like rabbits if they want. I just don’t want to deal with the prickers anymore.

This morning I went out to check on the chickens, fill their feeder, check for eggs. I moseyed over to the dormant garden to look at those pricker branches once again, perhaps to rejoice over a job done. The garden is a little depressing in winter. The mum that was so spectacular in October is just sad now.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The lemon grass that had bushed out so far it overgrew its planter box had been hit by frost finally and cut back.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Not an overly uplifting mosey. Even the bird bath up close had nothing to redeem it.

bird feeder.jpg

Then something green caught my eye. Something green in January.

garlic.jpg

On October 24, just over three months ago, I planted some garlic bulbs that Tracy had given me, garlic bulbs called Nootka Rose (who comes up with these names?) that had sent green shoots into the air. Green shoots! January! You know, sometimes it doesn’t take much for our spirits to be lifted. Look at that green!

And the seasons, they go round and round…

His First Book at 85

Throughout his life Hank Browne was fascinated with ruins of all kinds: skeletons of houses and churches long since abandoned, roofs falling in, canals overgrown, kilns and forges crumbling by way of one tiny crack at a time, bridges unused and slowly disintegrating, walls and chimneys freestanding – all of which at one time had stood new and coherent and sound. To him the ruins were a testament to the skills, needs, hard work, challenges and creativity of those who came before us. They were a window into time past, a reflection of the power of nature when left to itself. To him they were beautiful.

For thirty years he wanted to tell the world. Four years ago he began earnestly, building a team and developing ideas that would make his book about ruins a reality. Last night we gathered in his living room to celebrate his achievement, his dream come true. Hank and his book, Vanishing History: Ruins in Virginia, were featured on “Charlottesville Inside Out,” a local PBS (WHTJ) show that introduces the community to extraordinary people doing extraordinary things.

7 (2).jpg

Host Terri Allard, in her signature style that both charms and engages, interviewed Hank and his photographer, Kevin MacNutt, at the ruins of Governor James Barbour’s home on the grounds of Barboursville Vineyards. A fire on Christmas day in 1884 destroyed the beautiful home that Thomas Jefferson had designed when the United States was a new nation. It is one of the amazing structures still standing, still speaking of its past, that Hank included in his book, and was therefore a perfect backdrop for the PBS segment.

6 (2).jpg

Hank’s book jacket bio states that his career as an architect included “the challenge of finding technical solutions to the preservation of architectural fabric and integrity.” He also “furthered his professional credentials at the International Center for Restoration of Monuments and Sites in Rome and played a significant role in the restoration of numerous historic buildings including Pearl Buck’s birthplace in Hillsboro, West Virginia; the Executive (Governor’s) Mansion in Richmond, Virginia; ‘Pine Knot,’ Theodore Roosevelt’s Camp in Scottsville, Virginia; and eleven retail and warehouse buildings on Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina.”

Even with all that, the writing of a book that was on his mind for 30 years reminds me of the violin story that John Holt tells in Learning All the Time, the one about the guy who was 50 and wanted to learn to play the violin but knew it would take him five years to learn it well and that he’d be 55 by the time he could play proficiently. This may be true, someone said to the man, but in five years you’ll be 55 anyway.

Let us not overlook that Hank was already past 80 when he took the first steps to create his book. He didn’t know how long it would take. Bravo!

With determination that crossed the line into passion, he had reached out to Kevin and traipsed with him through fields, woods, brambles and rain, time and again – hey, are you free next weekend to go shoot some more photos? When they had compiled an impressive photographic sampling of old, falling, crumbling and ruined houses, kilns, forges, canals, locks, train stations (like this one at Pleasant Valley),

 

bridges, mills, churches, industrial sites, viaducts, tunnels, villages and springs, they began laying out the pages and trying different ways of presenting the accompanying information.

Hank’s goal was not only to show the beauty of the structures – which, granted, is sometimes an eerie beauty – but also to advocate for the care and preservation of what he calls “lonesome evidence of man’s endeavors.” Writing a book has the advantage of allowing you to include what you think particularly pertinent or noteworthy, such as this quote from John Ruskin, a prominent social thinker of the Victorian era:

When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our father did for us.”  

low res Ruins cover image Browne.jpg

My part started about two years ago, pulling all the pieces together to publish this beautiful, full color, hardbound book that was finally in hand last January. It was selected for the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book and has sold out well more than half of its initial inventory through independent bookstores, Amazon and his website. As we gathered last night to raise a toast, first to Hank and Kevin…

8.jpg

… and then to all the players who formed a part of this marvelous success story, I thought about all the good and necessary pieces of the puzzle – great people, vast experience, outstanding skills, wise use of resources, passion, determination, guts, patience, humor and mutual encouragement, to say nothing of hard work, long days and many miles traveled.

Just as important as what you have (and we all know this) is what you don’t have, or don’t allow, or effectively push away: naysayers, skepticism, lack of confidence, pettiness. These negatives always vie for positioning but they did not get a place at Hank’s table, so to speak.

Everyone else in the room last night – Kevin, Hank’s daughters Leslie and Tracy, Leslie’s husband Clark, friends Georgiana and Michael and me (how lucky am I to count as a friend!) – can vouch for Hank’s can-do spirit, his continual gratitude to those who have walked alongside him, his willingness to use technology (his laptop to type out narratives and sort through Kevin’s photo files, a clicker when giving powerpoint presentations), his unquenchable fascination with all things built with care and expert craftsmanship (especially those that have seen better days), and his steadfast belief that some things (especially those that have seen better days) deserve our attention, our praise, our protection.

And he’s not calling it quits. A book about ruins in Maryland is in the works!

When I am in my 80s (Lord willing, I will get there!), I hope I am eager to brave what is new, to embrace the as-yet-unmet goals in my life, and to forge ahead with the same grace, the same energy, the same fortitude that this wonderful man has shown. And I hope there is someone with an arm around me, saying to me as I say to Hank: Bravo! You did it!

3.jpg

A Bit Brisk

On Friday of last week we arrived at Lincoln and Julia’s straw bale house in Vermont at about 430 in the afternoon. Temperatures were in the single digits, maybe below zero already – at that point, what does it matter? – and lots of snow blanketed the ground. Six-year-old Rise came out to greet me wearing her pajamas, leggings, socks, slippers and a sweater. “It’s a bit brisk,” she said plainly.

a bit brisk.jpg

This photo was taken before the 18” or so of fresh snow that fell the next day. Do you see those icicles hanging on the side of the house? They looked like this straight on.

icicles.jpg

Yes, that’s plastic on the windows. That’s as far as they have gotten so far. It’s a double layer of 6ml plastic, which is a fairly decent wind block. In case you were wondering, straw bales have great insulatory value, but are much more effective when they have been mudded and sealed, which will happen in warmer weather. As of Friday night there was also no upper floor insulation except for the air trap – the 1/2” green foam insulation sheeting over 2” foam blocks separating the green from the inside surface of the plywood of the roof. On Saturday morning, following Lincoln’s birthday party Friday night, he and Julia posed for me on that upper floor.

Lincoln and Julia.jpg

You see lots of green but no pink puffy insulation. That’s because they had barely begun that part. Over the course of three days, the upper floor went from this …

10.jpg

…to this. The walls (not the ceiling yet, but they’re getting there!) are fully pinked!

12.jpg

You can imagine that the pink makes quite a difference regarding heat loss and therefore overall warmth.

11.jpg

I will come back to the specifics of the construction. For now I just want to make it clear that without insulation it wasn’t overly warm in there. At one point I found Eppie standing between the couch and the chair next to it eating ice. Where did she get the ice she is very happily eating?

Eppie ice.jpg

Right behind her, where post meets straw bale meets interior 6ml plastic, there’s a bit of ice. But only here and there.

ice inside.jpg

While the exterior temperatures varied between -11 and 8 (-23 to -13C), the interior temperature maintained a steady mid- to upper-50s (12-14C), which is a tremendous improvement over the 25-30 degree F differential they experienced at first. By Monday evening when all the insulation was in the upper walls, the house was holding at 58F with a good fire going in the wood stove even though there was a fierce wind making the below-zero temps feel much colder outside. Here we are playing Ocean Bingo…

game2.jpeg

…and sneaking Samuel’s homemade crackers.

sneaking crackers cropped.jpg

You can see that neither Rise (who walked outside in her pajamas) nor Eppie (ice-eater) seems to need the hat and multiple layers of wool that I do not feel quite comfortable enough to take off, though toward the end, as the pink upstairs increased, I unzipped the vest a few times. Half the time, the girls forget to wear their slippers and are running around the house barefoot or in just socks.

Oh, the poor socks. Here is what happens when socks meet sawdust. Ah, well, they function just the same!

socks.jpg

During the weekend snowstorm, while the wind blew and the temps outside maxed out at 4F (-15C) — not counting wind chill — we were continually shoveling a path.

snowstorm.jpg

This family continues to amaze me. They take it all in stride and don’t see how extraordinary it all is. They just live there, dressing appropriately, taking one day at a time, gradatim ferociter: step by step with ferocity. It will all get done. They will put the rest of the insulation in; hang, tape and paint the sheetrock; mud and paint the straw bale walls inside and out; install a wood floor on top of the subfloor and (yes!) enjoy hot and cold running water – all in good time. Even when it’s a bit brisk!

gradatim ferociter.jpg

Lyn’s Comfort Quilt

Hopefully every one of us bears witness to – or is blessed to be part of – a truly wonderful marriage. I’m talking about the kind of marriage in which both people know beyond any doubt that they are each other’s best friend, that only together are they the best individuals they could be, that because of being together their lives are full, rich and meaningful to the limit of what humans can experience and that words like commitment, trust, companionship, care and joy are not just words, but are lived out in tangible, consistent ways.

Lyn and Bertie had one such marriage. I got to know them in my early 20s and was blessed to watch in awe for decades as they walked their godly ways, kindly opening their home to me and many others, being the best of neighbors and friends, modeling grace, humor, generosity and gentleness. Ten years ago we stood in their living room capturing a single moment in their wonderful world.

with Lyn and Bertie (2).JPG

We never want sad things to happen, especially to people we love, but we know we are not immune, that we will not escape crying buckets when the realities of life and death impose upon us their at-times-devastating ways. There are no words for the heartache that comes, as it did for Lyn a year ago, when one of a perfect pair is left behind.

I had tried for years to tell Lyn how much she meant to me, how her everyday walk inspired my own, how her selfless service to those in her path shone brightly and brought good beyond measure. I wrote notes and letters mostly, but words are just words, as they say, and you can’t hold them in your hands and they don’t dry tears.

My dear friend Kim, Lyn and Bertie’s only daughter, had an idea that turned into an opportunity for me to show my love, gratitude and admiration. Shortly after her father passed away, Kim told me she wanted to use his shirts to make pillows (or something similar) to remind her own sons and their cousins of their grandfather. As we talked, the idea quickly evolved into using those same shirts to make a quilt for her mom – a way to help her feel close to him, to be wrapped up in him, to have a part of him near. Kim said the only problem was that she herself would have a hard time cutting her father’s shirts.

That’s where I came in. One thing led to the next and Kim sent me the shirts – mostly conservative, neutral buttondown oxfords that were either solid color or had teeny, muted plaids, but also one dark green solid, a work shirt as Kim called it. All of them had (as men’s shirts generally do) a chest pocket. Bertie always kept a hard candy in his chest pocket to be able to offer one to others, but also, as Kim says, “as handy access for himself because he loved sweets!” He also liked to wear bold-striped rugby shirts, but using knit fabrics along with woven fabrics would be tricky, plus the stripes are proportionally bigger than would work well.

Kim agreed to leave the project in my hands. I did what I always do when a quilt is happening – I opened my own fabric scrap boxes and began to see what might work alongside the shirt fabrics. By themselves, the oxfords and the one dark green would have a hard time being interesting, even if they were the core of the piece. I found some perfect blue and white bold-striped material, a miniature version of rugby stripes that would serve as the rugby element and got Kim’s permission to add color and some femininity – it would, after all, be a lady’s (a dear lady’s) quilt and lay on her bed in a room papered with tiny rosebuds.

I had some other good coordinating fabric scraps, but not enough, nor enough variety of color. Coincidentally, my friend Anett was coming from Germany to visit for five days in April. If anyone has an eye for color and design, it’s Anett. We went to the store and found the following to add to the shirts and what I already had.

fabrics cropped.jpg

Making a quilt is more fun together. This was already a group project with Kim’s idea, Anett’s eye and Lyn’s consent. It was even better that Anett was willing to iron, cut and organize squares with me. We even got a few of the nine-squares sewn together while she was here. My dining room table was the perfect work surface.

fabrics on table.jpg

Anett and I cut large squares of the shirt fabric and alternated these with nine-squares that themselves were put together with a variety of fabrics. After Anett left, I kept going, hugely motivated by the hope that somehow this quilt would bring comfort to Lyn. I knew I was taking a chance with the additional fabrics. I hoped, for example, that the polka dots (tiny as they were) wouldn’t strike her as frivolous or too playful at a time when her heart hurt so much.

early construction (2).jpg

I played around with the arrangement a good bit, getting closer to what seemed best every time I moved them around on my bed, and finally got them connected with the strips of gray that form the mullions of the panes. I chose a lighter gray for the back, a soft flannel sheet in fact that looked silvery to me, like the silver lining of a cloud. I chose one of the shirt pockets and appliqued it on the back of the quilt in the upper left, about where (proportionately) a shirt pocket sits on a shirt.

The dark green worked as a defining border around the edge. Kim said later, “One thing that struck us about the quilt is that you used my dad’s work shirt cut into those small strips as the edging to frame it and hold it all together. Far beyond the dark green edging looking nice, it was symbolic of my dad’s hard work, strength and care for his family.”

I quilted the three layers together and carved Bertie + Lyn on a tree, so to speak, on one of the shirt squares. If any part of this project brought tears to my eyes (and still does), it’s this.

IMG-20180510-WA0001.jpg

Some of you may recall that in the early spring there was a huge building project at my house – a new chicken coop. I had helped dismantle the old run, dig post holes for the new run, set the cedar posts in cement and erect the foundational elements of the new coop. Then right at the end of April, I got sick. I got a coughing sickness that kept me pretty much planted on the couch for almost a month. By the time this happened, the main part of the quilt was together and mostly handwork remained. Had I not been sick and confined to indoor, quiet work, I am not sure how this quilt would have been finished by the time Kim and I planned to rendezvous at Yoder’s in Madison, Virginia, for the hand-off in May. But it was.

Before I packed it up, I put a hard candy in the pocket.

Kim had asked me to send a photo of the quilt while it was in process. I had this photo of it finished…

IMG-20180510-WA0000.jpg

… but I told her a photo would spoil it, would not give the best idea of it (I still think this) so I didn’t send it. She waited. I was very happy that when she finally held it in her hands, she was sure her mom would like it.

with Kim at Yoders (1).jpg

Along with the quilt I sent a note to Lyn. It included: No doubt you will recognize Bertie’s shirts. But all by themselves they would have made a very dull quilt indeed and not come close to reflecting his unique personality. Plus, we all know that only together with you was he the man he was. You were there every step of the way and he needed you as you needed him. So the quilt had to reflect you too. You are so beautiful!

Oh the fun I had! There had to be some bold stripes for his rugby shirts, a pocket for his candy, some rosebuds and other flowers and some pink for you, some softness, some delicacy, splashes of color, old and new, subtle and fun, conventional and unexpected, greens for the Green Mountains of Vermont, blues for the glorious, endless sky, golds for the golden years you had together, your names carved together somehow (I hope you like the how!).  Hopefully the fabrics, each in different ways, bring you good, peaceful, comforting thoughts, and the combination of them pleases your eye and your heart. Hopefully it looks nice in your room and adds warmth in ways that only God can make happen. Hopefully Bertie feels a little bit closer.

Lyn sent me a beautiful, heartfelt letter of thanks that overjoyed me. Kim said, “The quilt is a treasure. Mom snuggles down beneath it as she rests. I often go in and rub my hands over it when I am at the house. It feeds the longing I have to be near my dad. I think the quilt, made with love and with all its symbolism, is the most beautiful gift you could have given my mom to bring comfort to her broken heart.”

When I went to Vermont in August, I got a big hug from Lyn and was able to see it on her bed. How blessed am I to have such marvelous people in my life, and how grateful to have had the opportunity to give back some small measure of good to Lyn, who has done more for me and for everyone around her than she will ever know.

Lyn B1.jpg

Chocolate Cheesecake and Degrees of Fabulousness

The tradition in our family is that on your birthday you get the kind of cake you want. It’s telling that the last two cakes I’ve made my children – for Marie in Boise in September and for Lincoln this week (to bring to Vermont) – have been chocolate cheesecake. This is one of those that I’ve made quite often over the years. It always cracks, but that never matters! It’s totally fabulous. There are no words to describe its fabulousness.

You start with a box of Nabisco chocolate wafers crushed up fine. These are dark, thin and crisp. They crush into fine crumbs nicely. I used to use my food processor, which works great and creates fine, even crumbs, but then I was in a hurry one time and didn’t want to bother taking the machine out, setting it up, using it for one minute and then having to clean, dry and put it all away again. So I tried using a gallon-size ziplock bag and a rolling pin, which requires more uumph but does the trick, and have been doing that ever since. Plus I always figure that if I work a little harder to make the cake, if I exert more energy, burn more calories, I have less to worry about when the time comes for eating it. This may be faulty logic, but it has served me well 😊

crumbs.jpg

One package of cookies is 9 oz (255g) which crush to about 2 cups (500ml), a little more maybe depending on the size of your crumbs.

crumbs in cup (2).jpg

The cookie crumbs get mixed with ½ cup sugar and 5-6 tablespoons of butter. It’s better if the butter is soft to begin with, but if it’s not, you can manage. I am not being exact on the amount of butter because it doesn’t matter. It works just fine with 5 TB, but 6 makes the mixture a bit more pressable in the pan. A fork works to mix it up, but if you have a pastry blender, that’s a bit better.

crumbs in bowl unmixed.jpg

Mixing it up means evenly distributing the sugar and the butter. It ends up looking like this.

crumbs in bowl mixed.jpg

I’ve made this recipe many times and found it makes a very thick cake, so I took to making two, one small and one large. (Now that I think of it, that’s probably why I started using the whole package of cookies — see recipe below.)  I don’t think Lincoln will object to having two birthday cakes! I used two springform pans, one 26cm (10.5”) and one 17cm (6.5”). You could use any combo that adds up to about the same size, or one very large pan and have a thicker cake.

Into the pans go the crumbs. You press them out with your fingers or the back of a spoon until they are not too loose. You’ll be plopping thick cake batter on top of this.

crumbs in pan.jpg

Oh, the recipe. I copied this years ago out of a book called Great American Cakes, which I cannot find. Looking at the recipe. seems I did make some changes! I use the whole package of chocolate wafers and correspondingly a bit more butter, but I stayed with the ½ cup sugar. The batter part, I promise you, I always make exactly as the recipe says (well, almost, we’ll get to that). Trust me, it’s all good!

recipe (2).jpg

(In case this is hard to read, I’ve typed it out below.)

I did two things differently: 1. After I beat the eggs into the cream cheese mixture (or watched as my beast of an electric stand mixer beat it in), after I added the vanilla, sour cream and chocolate and watched said mixer combine all these ingredients, I turned up the speed. I’m blaming this on Aquaman! Yes! On account of it having been an awesome movie, Samuel and I subsequently watched Captain America and The Avengers, all very (goes without saying) action-packed and fast-moving. Could there be something changing in my brain – hey, speed can be fun! – that I am transferring to cake-making?? It made a beautiful fluffy batter, I can tell you that. (You may note my restraint – I am not going to go on and on about the swirls!)

batter.jpg

So I did not allow the mixer to simply “stir in” the vanilla, sour cream and chocolate. I let the machine beat it silly! This produces air in the batter, which may or may not be a thing I decide is a good, permanent change. This is how recipes evolve.

A thing to know is that this cake cracks. I always have followed the recipe exactly regarding the very slow cooling process, which is to help prevent cracking, but it always cracks anyway. When I say crack, I mean crack. It goes from being smoothed out in the pan (pans in this case)…

batter in pans.jpg

…to looking like the Grand Canyon on steroids.

cracks.jpg

But it doesn’t matter! You take a can of cherry pie filling, spread it on top and watch all signs of cracks disappear! No one is the wiser and it tastes heavenly! Just don’t forget the cherry pie filling (although you could use any flavor of pie filling that you deem appropriate to go with chocolate cheesecake).

About which I must tell you my second change. This cake is for Lincoln, who in the past always left the cherries on his plate. He liked the sweet, pudding-like, thickened cherry juice just fine, but the cherries themselves he couldn’t eat. Last time I made this for him, I tried using (what was then new and I was playing around) my immersion blender to finely chop up the cherries and blend them with the pudding-like part. He loved it! So that’s what I do now.

with cherries.jpg

That’s the thing with recipes, with life! You can do something this way or that way for years (I’ve been making this recipe for at least 20, I’d say) and one day get a brainstorm that turns out to be a much better way. I am unable to firmly say yes-absolutely-go-for-it! regarding the late-stage furious whipping of the batter because with the whipping it’s fabulous and without the whipping it’s fabulous, and who can measure degrees of fabulous-ness?? But on the changing of normal cherry pie filling (with whole cherries in it) to a thick, fruity topping of even consistency – that’s a keeper!

Chocolate Cheesecake with Cherry Topping

2/3 package chocolate wafer cookies, crushed
½ stick (1/4 cup) butter
½ cup sugar
———————————————————
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa
1 Tbsp flour
½ tsp salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 ½ lbs (3 eight-ounce packages) cream cheese, softened
5 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup sour cream
8 oz. (2/3 of 12-oz package) semisweet chocolate morsels, melted (4 mins on power 4 in microwave)
1 can cherry pie filling (for topping)

  1. Combine crushed cookies, ½ cup sugar and butter for crust. Press into bottom and sides of springform pan. (I cover just the bottom.)
  2. In large bowl (I use my large stand mixer bowl) beat cream cheese with electric mixer. Add cocoa powder, sugars, salt and flour; beat till smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each. Stir in vanilla, sour cream and melted chocolate. Pour (plop carefully) into crust.
  3. Bake in preheated 450-degree oven for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees and continue baking. Turn off heat but leave cheesecake in oven for one more hour. After that, still leaving cake in oven, prop oven door open (very slow cooling), another hour. (Remove from oven, transfer to plates by sliding a knife around the edge of the springform pan, opening the release of that pan and carefully removing side part, sliding a wide, strong spatula carefully under cake and easing it onto a plate.)
  4. Spread cherry pie filling on top (put in blender or use immersion blender first if you want to chop up the cherries.) Cool rest of the way in fridge.

Sliding Snow

As we left to go see Aquaman on Saturday, it was beginning to snow lightly. When we came out of the theater, there was a dusting on the ground and we were glad we had chosen the 3:45 p.m. showing instead of the 7:10. Sunday morning at not quite dawn (you can see the dusk-to-dawn, timed heat lamps still glowing red inside the coops), this scene greeted me.

morning shot cropped.jpg

I didn’t think the chickens would be eager to put their feet in the cold, white stuff, so I took my time getting out there to open the door for the hens in the new coop. They did not rush out when I raised the door, practically tumbling over one another as usual. They didn’t even peek out. I opened the brooding box doors and found Whitey in her usual spot and Spot still in lala land. Hey, that’s cold air – d’ya mind?!

unwilling chickens.jpg

I noticed the icicles forming and threw some feed inside for these Unwilling Chickens. If they chose to stay inside for a while, scratching around in the straw to find the grain would give them something to do.

The other group had come through the opening at the top of their little ramp and down into the covered area, but that’s as far as these Reluctant Chickens went. For once they were not clamoring at the door where I stood taking their photo. In order to do that, they would have to step into the cold fluff. For once they did not seem to be begging for food so much as Could you get rid of that foreign material??

reluctant chickens.jpg

An hour or so later I found these Underneath Chickens that had managed to get as far as the area under their coop. This is not better! How do we get back up and inside??

underneath chickens.jpg

Not a fun day for any of them, but I was oddly unsympathetic. They have a heat lamp inside at night! (Not every chicken can boast the same.) They’ll live. Chickens have survived cold before.

What got my attention a little later in the day was the snow sliding off the metal porch roof of the cottage. Look how it’s heavier in the middle and drooping into a fan shape. How cool is that?!

cottage cropped.jpg

What I found Monday, after the temperature had risen slightly above freezing and the snow had melted some, was just as interesting. The weight of the snow had come slowly down the two front valleys of the cottage roof, buckling into waves.

(right)

right roof cropped.jpg

(left)

left roof cropped.jpg

But the best part was the icicles tilting toward the front door.

(right)

right icicles2 cropped.jpg

(left)

left icicles cropped.jpg

It hadn’t been all that windy, so I guessed that the weight of the descending snow had caused this effect. At first I wished I’d had a slow-motion camera going on it all day because surely those icicles were hanging straight down before they veered sideways. Then I thought I should have not only individual shots of the icicles on either side, but the same shot as above with the fan-shaped swath in the middle, only without the fan-shaped swath in the middle because it had already fallen to the porch by the time I took the icicle photos. I went back out not twenty minutes later to try to get this shot – boots, coat, scarf, the whole business – and the icicles on the right had already crashed down to their natural end. So much for that. Only the icicles on the left remained. How quickly things can change!

This made me think about two things:

The moments we capture and the moments we don’t. Our phones make incessant photography and videography possible but let us not get too lazy and make the camera do all the work. Some things we should capture, yes, especially for those who cannot be there. I love seeing a video of my two-year-old granddaughter Piper (in Seattle) telling her very obedient dog to roll over (and Zadie does it!). But no matter what we capture, no matter what we have a glimpse of – there’s always more to the scene, always more that we should/could imagine. Let’s not forget 1. There’s a fuller picture than the glimpses we get, and 2. The best images, the most powerful images – our memories — live almost exclusively in our minds and our hearts, and that’s where they belong. Some of them, to be sure, live only in our imaginations. Let us continually build up that bank, filling it with sweet and wonderful images that sustain us when it’s dark outside, when certain days of wonder are behind us, when the screen is blank.

The expected way and the sideway. Ordinary icicles go straight down on account of this thing called gravity. Not many seemingly have a mind of their own and veer in any non-downward direction — Nah, who wants to go straight down?! Let’s give ‘em something to marvel at! I keep thinking about the extraordinary things people do that they don’t have to, such as Lincoln and Julia building their pentagonal, straw bale insulated house in Vermont. Various well-meaning people said to them, essentially: You have two small children. You live in a cold place. Build something simple – four straight walls, four straight corners, roof, windows, door, water, power, heat – that you can live in temporarily while you then play with funky designs and materials. But Lincoln and Julia chose the unexpected way, the sideway, the harder way. They chose to make their own unique house from the get-go (unconventional yurt in the meantime notwithstanding!), thereby writing their own unique story. The sideway is not always the best option, granted, and we have to think it through and sometimes take our chances, but oh the dividends! Lincoln and Julia not only give us something to marvel at, they also are making lots of deposits in their memory bank!

Tuesday morning the mango peels I threw on the ground inside the chickens’ run on Monday are still there. None ventured into the snow to get them. I opened the door, out they came, still unsure … and they all stood on the platform. Now what? Huh? Now what are we supposed to do?

The others had made their way to the door and begged as usual. Food, remember?? Starving here! (As if!)

begging as usual.jpg

But the icicles! Those on the left had not yet fallen off, but had inched ever slightly downward. Against the backdrop of dawn over the mountains, I felt like I was in a fairy land.

left corner day2.2.jpg

And the blanket of snow that had formed on the side roof of the cottage, the blanket that yesterday looked like this…

snow not yet curved.jpg

…now had shifted down and curved inward.

snow in curve (2).jpg

Nature made a show for me. I’m so glad I was here to see it!

Straw Bale House: Part 3 (Yurt)

A Shower or a Fridge: Which Would You Choose?

Lincoln and Julia’s one-of-a-kind, pentagonal, straw bale house was first of all a dream. It did not come in a kit. There were no pre-existing plans. This photo, taken with immense joy in late 2018, shows the first time smoke came from their stovepipe. Walls, roof, heat — these must come first.

28smoke in chimney

Houses like this, especially when you are building them almost single-handedly, do not come together quickly. It took nearly two years on the property for Lincoln and Julia to be able to abide in this abode, even if it is far from finished. Until then, they all had to rest their heads somewhere. The choice seemed perfectly logical: a temporary dwelling just down the hill.

In the late winter of 2017 they bought the land. The first two weeks (thankfully now just a memory) they slept in … a tent. That year at that time was not as snowy (snow might have been less brutal) as it was rainy — a nonstop, 40-degree drizzle that erased the snow but gave them nowhere to warm up. In their memories this qualifies as the worst part of the adventure. But spring came and with it, the beginnings of permanency. You can cook outdoors on a camp stove for a while, but an indoor kitchen, however rudimentary, has advantages.

early camping2.jpg

The yurt that would be their home for nearly the next two years had been erected twice before – the first time on a hillside overlooking Mt. Mansfield immediately following their wedding in October 2011. (Yes, they lived in it all that winter! A small wood stove inside heats up the entire space to a toasty 65 degrees or so, and 65 feels toasty indeed when it’s 4 outside.) The second time was for a short while in Virginia before Rise was born.

This time they sunk pressure-treated 4x4s down to bedrock and built a non-equilateral hexagonal framework of double-beamed 2x10s. That’s three long double beams laid parallel to each other — one 17-footer (about 5.2m) across the middle, one on each side of it about 8 feet away and four more that closed in the frame, like my imperfect sketch (you get the idea).

yurt framework cropped.jpg

The 2×6 joists that stood on end across the framework then each had at least two points to rest on.

yurt base.jpg

So far this was more like a freestanding deck than the base for a dwelling. But let’s be real — this is Vermont and it gets mighty cold. So they got underneath, stapled landscape fabric to the undersides of the joists and filled all the in-between spaces with regular loose-fill cellulose insulation that was repurposed from the walls of their good friend Zach’s house. The insulation provided a critical measure of warmth and the landscape fabric gave incidental water a way out.

yurt base with sand.jpg

After the insulation between the joists came the pine plank flooring. Remember this is the third go-round in a yurt. They chose pine planks “after not enjoying being on osb or dirt.” (OSB, oriented strand board, is, according to Wikipedia, “a type of engineered wood similar to particle board, formed by adding adhesives and then compressing layers of wood strands (flakes) in specific orientations.”) Lincoln says, “It’s not really a great foundation,” but it served them well.

To be able to cut the pine planks where they needed to be cut (see them lying flat but sticking out under the lattice?), they first put up the accordion-like walls, then circularized the bottom by suspending the cone-like framework of the roof on the lowest intersection of the lattice.

yurt takes shape cropped.jpg

The roof framework was then disassembled and reassembled up in its proper place, as you see in this photo. The opening in front is for the door of course.

roof supports cropped.jpg

The canvas, having been used twice before and clearly showing wear, tear and rot from four years of storage and getting hauled all over the place, was not in its original very white condition, but it did the job surprisingly well. It wasn’t long before this simple structure began to feel like home. Let’s just take a nice book and sit in the sunshine! That’s Eppie, almost three.

home cropped.jpg

 

 

When I came to visit that spring, all was in order. A workable kitchen area with running water, gravity fed from a nearby stream (the red tube hanging over the sink)…

yurt inside Rise Eppie May 2017.jpg

…small bunk beds for the girls along one side…

bunk beds.jpg

…and Lincoln and Julia’s bed against the wall during the day when not in use.

yurt inside May 2017.jpg

As summer went on, the grass came in, making an idyllic front yard. Their garden, with natural fencing to keep small critters out, included strawberries, tomatoes and squash.

front yard cropped.jpg

Probably the most exciting thing that happened that year was on July 25 when power came!

power July 25 2017.jpg

The very first thing they hooked up was a small, dorm-style fridge, which very much improved upon the previous need to continually refresh the ice in a cooler. Oh, the joy of a cold glass of milk!

small fridge.jpg

“Refrigeration!” Lincoln said. “This may have been the happiest day of the whole project to have that modernity. Real running hot water/a shower will probably be the only thing to top it.” They put the full-size fridge near the site of the barn initially, next to that glorious fuse box! To put it in the yurt required a proper gauge wire (that would support a full fridge’s amperage draw) long enough to make the 310-foot trek between fuse box and yurt. That didn’t happen until the following spring.

refrigerator.jpg

You will note the absence of (and have perhaps been wondering about) indoor plumbing. When it comes down to it, until such time as water from a well would run indoors, they could take hot showers at Zach’s house, use water being led into the yurt from the on-site stream for general washing of dishes and hands, and fill and refill large dispensers with potable water from Zach’s outdoor spigot.

But on site there must be a toilet of some kind, and indeed there was, built according to the same specifications Vermont uses to build the privies along the Long Trail. They figured if it was good enough for the state, it was good enough for them. Countless generations of humans have constructed similar structures and managed their personal needs adequately, if not warmly or luxuriously. I daresay this one is a far cry nicer than a lot of its predecessors.

outhouse2 cropped.jpg

Now think about it: If you had to choose between indoor plumbing and electricity, which would it be? How many of us have to choose? How many of us could (uncomplainingly) manage neither for a while and then one-but-not-the-other until both, in their proper time, were a part of our reality?

How much we take for granted every day! How blessed we are!

So, about Aquaman…

If you know me a little, you might be surprised at what I am going to say. If you don’t know me, I can tell you that I am a country girl who paints her toenails, that I love staring at a full moon through the trees on a clear night, that I have 22 ridiculous chickens that live a (some might say) pampered life (they have a heat lamp for the cold nights of Virginia), that a thrill for me is watching a beautiful dog run in the sunshine or hearing the sound of frogs in the creek. I don’t like roller coasters, fast cars, explosions or violence.

But I thought Aquaman was awesome!

aquaman (2).png

I’m just not a superhero kind of girl so this is an odd thing for me to think, say or feel – more than odd, you might say. Unexpected. Shocking even. I like crime dramas that are intelligently done, historical dramas that are reasonably realistic and romantic comedies that are not overly sappy or predictable. I love Blue Planet and Planet Earth (I and II). I love zoos, aquariums, mountains, beaches, lightly falling rain, the soft smile of a child, the velvety fur of a puppy, the natural. I don’t generally go for the glitzy, the fake, the fast, the wicked, the destruction.

I didn’t go see this film unwillingly though. When we went to Mary Poppins last week, we saw the poster for Aquaman and laughed. That’s the poster picture above. C’mon, look at that guy. How unnatural is that! But Samuel wanted to see it, said he “would be happy to go.” The fact that I would even consider it rather shocked him I expect, and then I brought it up again today. Sure, let’s go. I said to myself Someday I’ll look back at the time when Samuel was here and when that day comes, I don’t want to think Why didn’t I just go to the movie he thought would be fun to see? What would have been the harm? Why be a fuddy-dud?

It’s not that I thought it would be any good. I just didn’t want Samuel to think he knows me too well. It’s good to stay a little unpredictable, contributes to an unboring path. And I was curious. What’s all the fuss? Nonetheless I can say honestly that “It was awesome” was the last thing I expected to be saying afterward. Why was it awesome (to me)?

Genuine love portrayed: Love between man and a woman (he of the land, she of the sea – stay with me here) – they meet and love and have a child, Arthur, who is called a half-breed by his enemies later. A mother’s love for her son: She leaves for the child’s protection when he is young, and (back to love between man and a woman) every day afterward the man goes looking for her, hoping she will return, which she couldn’t for a long time because she was trapped. A son’s love for his father: Instead of leaving the scene to save himself, Arthur pulls his dad from his truck after the sea went crazy and tidal-waved it upside down. I love seeing genuine love portrayed because I believe there is such a thing and I love to see it, even in a superhero movie.

Genuine good guys and bad guys: No moral ambiguity, no hidden or not-so-hidden political agenda (I hate it when movies insert their political agendas). No wondering whose side anybody’s on. No sympathy lost on undeserving scumbags. Just good guys who fight valiantly for the good and bad guys who lust for power and don’t care who or how they hurt to get it. (And I don’t mean good males and bad males. I’m from New Jersey where “you guys” is not gender-specific.)

The hilarity of the over-the-top, fantastical creatures in their bizarre underwater world: Who gets to make this stuff up!? How much fun they must have had! For example, the “trenchers” attacking the fishing boat that Arthur/Aquaman and the somehow-also-air-breathing female lead named Mera had used for one of their escapes: Really?! Someone had a lot of fun with this scene (and all the rest) and you can tell. I could scoff, but why? Instead why not marvel at this (yet another) creative way of saying Evil tries so hard to get the better of them! But it does not succeed.

Evil fails to prevail. Of course it fails. That is why we love superheros. They triumph! They conquer evil against the odds. They defy norms and expectations. They survive absurd battle scenes. They encounter yet another challenge and they don’t let it defeat them. They act with integrity despite having cause for cynicism, bitterness and exhaustion. They use strength and power for good, mirroring longstanding archetypes that we know within ourselves hold true. They even make us laugh. And when they have the opportunity to kill the bad guy, what do they do?? You’ll find out. All you have to do is go see Aquaman, even if that’s the last thing someone expects you to do. Maybe you should defy their expectations…

The Icing on the Cake

I don’t mean Icing on the Cake in the figurative sense. You know, the way people say Oh that’s the icing on the cake when they mean the best part of an already good situation, something added that makes a thing better, an enhancement that you don’t actually need but takes the thing up a notch. Such as: My trip was already perfect in every way. The beautiful weather was just icing on the cake.

Notice that the phrase is not, generally, the frosting on the cake. There are exceptions of course, but the idiom that slips off the tongue for most people is the icing on the cake. The difference between icing and frosting is at the kindergarten level of understanding for pastry chefs and aficionados, but I daresay most people would be hard-pressed to articulate their particularities. That might be because the similarities are more striking. They both are 1. Sweet, 2. Spreadable, 3. Useful for enhancing/decorating/topping a cake or cupcakes.

Giovanna Zavell of Drake University begs to differ. She says they although they are commonly confused, they are in fact are “very different” and each have “their own personality.” Icing is thinner, glossier and gets a harder surface after it sets, as when you get eight inches of snow followed by a 40-degree day (so that the upper half inch or so melts) followed by a 10-degree day which makes that melted part form a crust on the surface that cracks as you walk through it. Icing is also called a glaze.

Frosting has more cream/butter, is fluffier and holds its shape. It is also called buttercream. You can spread it with a knife or you can squeeze it out of a pastry bag. Zavell says, “If you want my opinion, choose frosting. Always go with frosting.” But when it comes to food, there is really only one hard and fast “Always go with…” and we all know what that is. Always go with chocolate is just so obvious once you have tasted vanilla ice cream and then chocolate ice cream (I mean, seriously, who can argue with that?).

Now that we’re hopefully clear on icing vs. frosting (you will never mix them up again, right?), you will see that I am not focusing today on icing (though it’s what slipped out of my mind for a title (see how those idioms plant themselves deep in our brains and just spill out!), but rather on frosting. I ended up making two chocolate cakes recently, one for Sandy and one for John. On your birthday around here, you get the kind of cake you want, and both of them asked for chocolate, just sayin’!!

They wanted two different frostings though. Sandy, bless him, wanted chocolate. I know I will disappoint those who need/want exact instructions, but I was in a hurry that day and on autopilot. I mixed (with my new, handy-dandy electric mixer) half a stick of softened butter with some confectioner’s sugar (a.k.a. powdered sugar) (maybe two cups?), a few drops of vanilla, and enough milk (a teaspoon, two? three?) — oh and a couple heaping tablespoons of cocoa! — till it looked like this…

frosting needing more sugar.jpg

…at which point I said to myself No, that’s too wet and added more sugar…

frosting with more sugar.jpg

…to make the right consistency. By right consistency, I mean it is not dripping from the beaters, nor is it so stiff that you need to be Hercules to scrape it out of the bowl and spread it on the cake.

Sandy did not want further decoration on his cake – no silly sprinkles, sadly no coconut and thank God no crushed nuts of any kind. So his cake looked simple and tasted yummy. You can’t go wrong with chocolate + chocolate.

finished cropped.jpg

John, a few days later, wanted cream cheese frosting. For this (since I had better be a bit more specific), I checked with Fanny Farmer.

recipe cropped.jpg

I never put egg white in a frosting before! But hey, Fanny is reliable, and I must say, there was a nice fluffiness to this frosting when it was done. My mixer was wonderful again (what did I do without it??) and gives me the opportunity to show what I mean by drippy.

not enough sugar

This is what it looks like if you have not yet added enough sugar. It drips from the beaters and doesn’t hold the the beautiful shape of the beater swirls in the bowl. With enough sugar, it stays where it lands on the beaters, and the swirls hold their shape in the bowl. Gotta love those swirls!

not dripping

 

To frost the cake, first put a bit of frosting on the plate like this.

frosting on plate

 

That way, when you put your first layer of cake on the plate, it doesn’t tend to slide around as much. By the way, frosting a frozen cake is easier than frosting a non-frozen cake. So if you have time to plastic-wrap those layers and put them in the freezer for a while before the frosting stage, do that.

Frost the top of the first layer. Use a non-serrated knife if you want a smoother surface. Note: This does not have to look perfect. It’s going to get covered with the second layer.

frost middle

 

Add the second layer and frost the sides before the top. Note: This does not have to look perfect. It’s a homemade cake. Imperfections are part of the appeal.

sides first

 

When you are finished, defy expectations (John didn’t specify further decoration either) and add some prettiness such as colored sugar. There is already so much sugar in this – what’s a little more? It doesn’t change the flavor (or irritate anyone who doesn’t eat nuts and then could not enjoy this cake). I happened to have purple sugar on hand, which is a little more festive than it being plain, but not over-the-top. I hope he approves!

finished with sugar on top cropped.jpg