It’s Going To Be A Fine Week

Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. I’d spent a good part of the afternoon wandering through the dairy section at the grocery store trying to come up with something to make for my friend Esther, who needs a bit of cheer. I’ve known her for quite a few years now and though she lives only a few miles to the west I don’t see her much. She’s quite a bit older than I, and doesn’t get out real often except for Bingo Night down at the Town Hall and the late service every Sunday. We have the kind of friendship where we check in now and then, and laugh a bit, and share something we learned lately that might help the other, like when she gave me the book on gardening after I managed to kill off a planting of peas and tomatoes. And like how, last summer, I helped plan her trip to Canada to visit her brother.

The truth of the matter is Esther doesn’t have much time left. I don’t recall the doctor’s exact diagnosis, but Esther told me she hopes to see in the New Year and whatever happens after that doesn’t matter much because her life has been one fine trip. So we chat every week or so, and sometimes she calls after the show and asks whether I heard that lovely song about twilight or the monologue about sledding from one county to the next and I say yes and we laugh and I smile for awhile after we hang up and I imagine she does too.

I’ve always had a rough time knowing what to say when people I care about are suffering or grieving or in pain. What I’m thinking, though, is that since death is a part of it all, it makes sense to treat it that way. Not to make light of it, mind you, but carry on with things because days are precious and you wouldn’t want to waste even one of them steeped in melancholy. Oh, no. There are things to be done and misery isn’t all that productive. Which is why I decided to drop in on Esther Sunday afternoon and bring with me a still-warm cream cheese coffeecake. I knocked and Esther hallooed and I let myself in. She was sitting in her kitchen near the window drinking green tea and paying bills.

Brought you something, I said, and her eyes got big when I set the coffeecake on the table. “Why, I’ll never be able to eat all that,” she said, “but I’ll sure give it a go if you help.” I got two plates and a coffee cup for myself down from the cupboard and she pulled a knife from the drawer near the table and there went Sunday afternoon. The sun was low in the sky when I got up to leave. I hugged Esther tight and she hugged back and it occurred to me that one day soon I’ll call and she won’t answer, and that will be the way of it. Mortality gives life its own particular beauty. I have Esther now and she has me. The leaves are nearly gone, and snow is in the forecast, and it’s going to be a fine week.

And here it is once again, the recipe for cream cheese coffeecake, one of my all time favorite things to make for just about any occasion. Even for no reason at all except to make it, and to have a slice while the afternoon rolls on and thoughts of spring come rollin’ along.

Cream Cheese Coffeecake

1 loaf frozen white bread dough, thawed.

Filling: 8 oz. cream cheese, 1/2 c. sugar,
1 egg, 1 tsp. vanilla.

Topping: 6 T butter, 1/2 c. sugar, 3/4 c. flour.
Cut with a fork until crumbly.

Quick Icing: mix 1 ½ -2 c. powdered sugar, a bit of milk and
1 T vanilla until smooth and desired consistency.

Let dough rise until nearly double. Press into a greased pizza pan or 9 X 13 cake pan and poke several times with a fork. Cream cheese and sugar; add egg and vanilla and mix well. Pour and spread over dough. Sprinkle topping evenly over the cream cheese mixture. Let rise ten minutes, and bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes. Drizzle icing over. Serve up for breakfast or brunch. Enjoy!

Red the Color of Wintergreen Berries

Here’s a post, by request, from back in 2003. More than 15 years ago. Lot has changed since, and so much is still the same. No recipes back then, but I’ll make up for it next time around.

Listened to the show on Saturday and it was not bad. I was really quite taken with Inga Swearingen’s name alone, and kept saying it to myself as I listened from the green armchair in the living room. The kids were playing outside and I had nearly forgotten about them when they came stomping in all covered with snow, peeled off their snowsuits and threw them on the kitchen floor, and ran upstairs to read ghost stories to each other in the big corner bedroom with the door that opens onto a balcony. I’ve told them that balcony is off limits. They may fall through, or at least weaken the ceiling of the sun room below. They’re in a ghost story phase which gives them another excuse to scream.

So they stayed up there a while, reading and eating the popcorn I left for them and I turned down the lights and lit a candle and thought hard about Thanksgiving and how we all got so drowsy after the turkey at the in-laws. Inga sang “My Favorite Things” — a song I know from The Sound of Music and I went and made a mental list of my own: homemade bread pudding served up with green apples, and twilight, and the crackle of burning pine needles. I love my wood rolling pin and how the kids leave their footprints in the bath towels after a shower and how it feels to sleep under heavy quilts. I love to hear Mr. Sundberg laughing somewhere in the house, and I love silence, and those flour sack towels my mother embroiders along the edges with words like “Believe” and “Life isn’t fair and the sooner you realize it, the happier you’ll be.” She buys them in packages of five down at the hardware store. After she stitches the words in, she spray starches and folds a towel and sends it Priority Mail. The last one she sent arrived Saturday morning. It had just two words on it — in a red the color of wintergreen berries — followed by three tiny knots: “Remember when . . .”

It wasn’t until after the show when the kids were in bed and the candle was still lit and Mr. Sundberg had called from Wyoming to say goodnight that I got some of that precious silence. And the answer, Mother, is yes. I do.

Given Time

February 3, 2018

Made some apple crisp Saturday and it was pretty good. It’s a bit early in the year for apple crisp, I know, but I sometimes cannot wait to try a new recipe and you can always find apples and it seems to me cinnamon – unlike lemon or anise – works all year long. Kinda like garlic and avocado and saffron. Though I confess I have never once USED saffron. I will, though, given time.

It’s been a while since I’ve sat down with enough presence of mind to write something coherent. For all kinds of reasons. This winter has been particularly intense. The cold, of course, is always there, but this year a few layers of ice under the periodic snows have sent cars into the ditch (not mine, yet, mind you) and the dark of the winter has seemed darker. Many people dear to me have been experiencing all manners of pain. A dear friend’s mother passed away last week. Another is struggling with her husband’s raging moods. Another is questioning his purpose in life. Another is with his father in a New Jersey hospital even as I write, the father wrestling in that place between life and death. And then there is the general sense of unease with our country’s shift into the unfamiliar. None of these things are insurmountable. None of them not prone to healing, given time.

But still. Some days are such that rising up out of warm quilts to be productive and do something meaningful seems not impossible, but on the list of questionable. On those polar days, who wants to venture out to sweep the inches of light snow off the walk when there’s a fire going inside, and candles lit, and the option of baking something with cardamom and cream? Thank the Lord for the wind, reminding us that we may take a break now and then, but Nature will not. It’s been a lovely force out there, swirling the snow away, the super blood blue moon rising to its whistling. A song for a moon dance, that wind. Along with the sun, it will clear the snow, that wind, in time.

I’ve been reading, books large and small, some for pleasure, some for answers, some because they were recommended by friends. I re-read “King Lear” just for the heck of it. Someone was talking about Shakespeare over at the post office, and I thought, Hmm, and why not. I read an interesting article on the purification of silver, and am reading now a book titled “A Long Walk To Water” by Linda Sue Park, a short read I would highly recommend if you are lacking any perspective at all on how fortunate we are to turn a knob and have hot or warm or cold water spill out onto our bodies, or into a cooking pot, or into a small glass for the drinking. It’s a take on a way of life so remote from ours, yet most similar in that we humans want, very much, the same things. Something to hope for, good work to do, someone to love. And to love us. And may we each have one of those or all, over time.

It seems only a week or so since I last wrote, and looking now through my notes it’s been more than a month, and I feel like apologizing, but instead, perhaps I will simply carry on and push “send” a bit more often, and share with you things I found, and ask you questions, and answer yours, and simply be here while you are there and we will continue finding each other as we have all along. The way true friends are, given time.

Here’s a recipe I was blessed to sample recently when a friend brought it along to a gathering celebrating January. (Yes, we do that, and why not?) The crisp can be served up in squares, warm, with ice cream (something with caramel or brickle or cinnamon or plain) or simply some cream whipped not stiff but close. Or it works cut into bars as well. Versatility here in the polar region is a mighty fine thing.

Apple Crisp

Crust:
¾ cup brown sugar
¾ cup oatmeal
2 cups flour
2 sticks butter, melted
Mix and press firmly into 9×13 pan.
Bake 10-12 min at 400.

Filling:
6 cups apple slices (use your favorite pie apple)
1 cup sugar
1 T flour
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
Toss together and spread on crust.

Crumbly topping:
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ cups flour
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup melted butter
Mix together and spread on top.
Bake 45 min at 375.

Enjoy!

Three Perfectly Imperfect Homemade Pies

Made some hot pepper jelly dip Saturday and it was pretty dang good. Things have been winding up, slowly, these past few weeks with the cold getting colder and everything in the papers leaving me without words, really; the kids coming home for break, the question of whether the turkey would thaw in time (it did), holiday events popping up left and right, and all those ads for Black Friday this and Cyber Monday that. It’s enough for a relatively sane person to throw his or her arms up and holler, “Whatever!” or “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter!” Three phrases I do my best never to utter. They’re so without feeling, so dismissive, and if I’m going to put words out there I’d at least prefer words like, “Really” and “Seriously” and “Well isn’t that a humdinger.” All questions made statements by assumption that with whomever I am speaking would readily agree.

What DOES matter is my concern. When you REALLY think about it. I thought about it, all Thanksgiving Day as I cooked up a serious amount of food. What matters. And then, as I caramelized the onions and cooked the celery for the stuffing, I felt the list coming on. And it ended up sounding like Maslow’s hierarchy. Food. Water. Sleep. Comfort. Acceptance. So on. And so on. And then, I thought, those are NEEDS we have. Of course they matter. But what is at the heart of it all?

By then, I was on to the pie making. I gently rolled the crusts and lay them down in their plates. Then mixed the fillings – apple, pumpkin, blueberry – and poured each in its turn. At last, the top layers: Dutch crumbs for the apple; leaves cut from pastry for the pumpkin; lattice for the blueberry for dear old Uncle Tom. A brush with milk, a sprinkle of sugar, and into the oven they went. An hour later, there they were. Three perfectly imperfect homemade pies. Made with good thoughts and tenderness and spices and hope.

They mattered, those pies. To me, they did. They were one way I might show love on Thanksgiving Day. And Gratitude, too. But mostly love. And when all was said and done, and everyone was asleep on the couch or on the floor or tucked away up in bed, pure love poured out of every open window (got a bit overheated early in the day). And when there’s love, nothing much else matters, and everything does, and that we find ways to show it and share it is our only real purpose in life. Well, mine anyway. What matters to you might be quite a bit different, but I’ll bet love pops up in there somewhere.

On to the next thing! With gratitude, and love. And leftover pie.

Spicy spice. Oh, yes. Here’s an appetizer, the likes of which Great Aunt Wanda called, “an appeteaser.” Mmm Hmm. Yes, honey. Knock yer socks off and then some. And you’re sure to have requests so make some copies, for Pete’s sake.

Hot Pepper Jelly Pecan Dip

2 cups grated cheddar cheese
2 cups sliced green onions
2 cups chopped pecans
1/2 to 1 cup mayonnaise
1 jar hot pepper jelly

Mix cheese, onions and nuts in a large bowl. Stir in enough mayonnaise to hold together. Press cheese mixture into a shallow dish or pie plate and chill. Or if desired, press into a round cake pan lined with plastic wrap, chill and unmold onto plate before serving. Top with pepper jelly.

Serve with Wheat Thins or other crackers.

Enjoy!

One Bowl, Two Forks, and a Bottle of Good Red Wine

Made sweet potato salad on Saturday and it was not bad. Had black beans in it, too, and garlic and some red onion and cilantro and lime. All good. But it was the roasted sweet potatoes that made it just right, the kind of food I want to hide from everyone ‘til they’re all in bed and that’s when I get the bowl from the fridge and curl up in my blanket in the corner chair by the window and savor every bite of whatever it was I so selfishly hid away. But it was not to be. Mr. S could smell the cilantro all the way down in his workshop, and once I roasted the potatoes in a bit of olive oil and garlic, well, that was that. It was our dinner, that salad, along with a ring of smoked kielbasa and the last of the red wine, and a bit of vanilla ice cream with peaches cooked in brown sugar.

We talked about food, intending to plan out our Thanksgiving meal, but things got out of hand. We digressed. Our favorite meals (his is homemade pizza, so much so that we’re planning to spend a summer month down the road building a stone pizza oven out back, and I for my life – beef stroganoff, garlic pork roast, salmon, chicken and dumplings, homemade macaroni and cheese — can’t pick just one). We both agreed bacon is a staple, and butter, too. I voted for nutmeg and we at last disagreed. It’s cinnamon for him, all the way. And to almond extract, we both said “YES,” and to frosted sugar cookies, and apple pie, and homemade whipped cream and homemade root beer, which my grandma used to make and I did once and maybe we ought to give that a whirl one summer month as well.

I’m thinking it’s not so much the food itself, though, as with whom one shares it. Or cooks it, for that matter. Or bakes. Though I love to bake alone, I much prefer the kids in the kitchen with me, mixing and pouring and cutting out and frosting. I prefer the banter and the songs, the stories and the laughter to the quiet of rolling out pie crust in the fading light of the day. It’s the gathering about the table that makes the sauerbraten such a memory; it’s how we all take our peach pie and ice cream to the porch in the heat of July. How Mr. S and I share dessert, even though we often end up ordering two. Or three.

The best foods are those attached to memories of people and times we love, our parents and grandparents, our childhoods and all those Thanksgivings and Christmases and summers at the lake. Food becomes tradition that way, and each year when we put the cranberries on the table, we remember one grandma; and potato salad, the other. S’mores and buttermilk pancakes, fish fry and lemon bars, blueberry muffins and stuffing and fattijmand and pie.

And coffee. See, the first time we ever met, well, Mr. S asked me if I’d like a cup of coffee, and I said yes, and he brought me perhaps the best cup of coffee I’ve had. The coffee itself wasn’t the thing as much as how he smiled as he handed it to me. My gosh. Coffee hasn’t been the same since, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

He went to bed early Saturday night, and I washed the dishes and listened to music and thought about what new dish I might make when the kids come home next week. Something different. Something to remember. Maybe we’ll at last get Chinese takeout this time, like we always say we ought to. Why not? Traditions don’t last forever, and new ones have to start somewhere. Ain’t that the truth.

Here’s the salad Mr. S and I shared. I recommend one bowl, two forks, and a bottle of good red wine. No glasses required.

Roasted Sweet Potato and Black Bean Salad
1 lb sweet potatoes
1 small red onion
3 T olive oil, divided
1/4 tsp salt
Juice and zest from 1 lime
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 cup cooked black beans, drained and rinsed if using canned
1/2 cup cilantro
1/4 cup pepitas (optional)

Preheat oven to 400˚ F. Peel sweet potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch cubes and place on a sheet tray. Chop onion into 1/4 inch pieces and add to the tray. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil on top and add 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Toss until sweet potatoes are well coated. Spread into a single layer and roast until sweet potatoes are tender and starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes.
While the sweet potatoes are roasting, combine remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a jar with the lime juice, 1 teaspoon lime zest, minced garlic, and chili powder. Shake well.
Once sweet potatoes are done, transfer to a bowl. Add in the black beans, pepitas, and cilantro. Drizzle with the dressing and toss until salad is combined. This is best done while the sweet potatoes are still warm.

Enjoy!