Made a bundt cake yesterday for my new neighbors and it was not bad. A lovely couple, they seem, and they live three doors down. I saw the moving truck there on Wednesday, a good month after the Seversons moved out, and figured I’d go say hello. Which I did, and their names are Charlene and Bill. Very dear people, right off the bat, and it’s wonderful to welcome new neighbors. The Seversons were a bit of a mystery; they lived here only a year and kept to themselves, so it’s nice to welcome people who not only plan to stay a while, but ask a lot of questions and suggest a cookout next week and part with a big ol’ hug.
Good neighbors are a blessing, for a thousand small reasons. All the way from borrowing sugar or vanilla to keeping an eye on the house while you’re on vacation to keeping the dog for a few hours so you can be away in peace. They have ladders to borrow, my neighbors, and recipes and fresh bread and delicious hand-squeezed lemonade to share. They help out when one of us is sick and can’t shovel the drive, and they let us know if someone unfamiliar is around, or the porch light is out, and they can always be counted on to host a great dinner party out on the patio or deck, or even inside, where we have learned who allows shoes on and who prefers shoes off.
I’ve rarely had a neighbor who was anything but kind, but I have to say that Eleanor Husby was a sourpuss at best. She lived in the neighborhood only a year, across the street and two houses down. Nothing was just right as Eleanor saw it. The construction workers painting the road were rude and inconsiderate; the postman delivered the mail far too late; and the people in the house next to her stayed up far too late and made too much noise, as Eleanor saw it. But what does one expect? Those neighbors have three adolescent children, and OF COURSE there will be noise. Happy children are like that, and how could she complain?
I think what it all boiled down to was that Eleanor was lonely. Her husband left the year she moved in, and he was ‘bout all she talked about. Thing is, everyone is broken somehow, and everyone has a story, and the theme of Eleanor’s was that nothing ever was right. I don’t know where she is now, but when I learned she was moving to an apartment in the city, I took her some homemade popovers and a seafood lasagna, and Eleanor lamented about how hard it is to move but she couldn’t stand her the neighborhood. We talked about how many times we’ve each moved, and she softened a bit, and said she was hoping this move would be the last, and perhaps we might stay in touch.
We hugged a long hug, and that was the last I saw of her. I wrote to her at her new address, but no reply, and the lesson I’ve learned from Eleanor is three-fold: Love your neighbor, no matter what; some people are just unhappy and you can’t do a darn thing about it; and a pan of seafood lasagna and some warm popovers can go a long way on a cool spring day.
Here’s one for the neighbor next door. Meyer lemons are best, but any lemon will do, and make sure you deliver it warm. Homemade food is best that way.
Peg’s Meyer Lemon Bundt Cake with Vanilla Bean Icing
Nonstick baking spray
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup unsalted butter
1 tsp salt
4 large eggs
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
3 cups flour
Grated zest of 3 Meyer lemons
2 T Meyer lemon juice
1/4 cup Meyer lemon juice
2 T granulated sugar
1 cup powdered sugar
3 T heavy cream, plus additional if needed
1 tsp vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract if that’s what you’ve got)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray 10-cup bundt pan throughly with baking spray.
Beat sugar, butter and salt until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add baking powder and vanilla; mix well to combine. In liquid measuring cup, stir together milk and cream. Gradually add flour, and milk mixture, alternately, starting and ending with flour. Mix until smooth. Stir in lemon zest and juice.
Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing top with spatula. Transfer to oven and bake 60 to 70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Meanwhile, make Glaze: Stir together lemon juice and sugar.
Remove cake from oven; transfer pan to wire rack for 5 minutes. Turn cake out onto rack. Poke hot cake all over with toothpick, and brush glaze over cake; let cake cool completely.
Just before serving, make the icing: In small bowl, whisk together all ingredients. If icing is too thick to pour, whisk in additional cream 1 T at a time until pourable, but not too thin. Pour over cake and serve.
Made another pie on Thursday and it was not bad. I tend to bake in streaks, and not sure why that is. Couple cookie recipes, then some cakes. Then crisps or bars or pies. I think it has something to do with the seasons, or how one recipe reminds a person of another, or maybe it’s just a quirky thing with no explanation, some kind of habit I’ve embraced over the years, a part of the routine of the days.
People ask what I do with all that I make and bake. It’s a good question. When there are only two in the house (not counting the dog, who actually does count), you’d think the bars and pies and hotdishes would pile up. It can happen that way, but honestly I find a person or a place for everything I make. I just take it with me. Most of what I make is designated. I tend to remember what people like, so if I’m visiting my dearest friend Angela, I’ll make her some shortbread or gingersnaps or something decadent with dark chocolate. When I visit the kids up at school, I know cutout sugar cookies, frosted and decorated, will disappear in a day. Or a pan of bars with chocolate and caramel. Or molasses cookies with cream cheese frosting. I often take baked goods along with me when I visit friends, and my neighbors have never refused a warm apple or cherry pie. And when I visit my writing group, I have a lovely group of people always happy to try something new.
Food is such a great conduit for conversation. Show up at a gathering with a coconut cream pie and there’s bound to be a story about someone’s mother’s coconut cream pie, or how so-and-so got one in the face that one Fourth of July or how so-and-so was allergic to coconut and no one knew and he ended up in the emergency room with a swollen face. Make bars for the kids and they’ll gather round and talk about how you made ‘em for vacation Bible school or how you used to make the one OTHER kind bars with cherries and streusel. Take a coffeecake to the neighbor and who know what conversation might ensue.
Sharing food is easy, but it’s not the main thing. The Main Thing is the connection, the message that I care and want to share something, and here it is to sustain you awhile along the way, and there is conversation to nourish us both, and who could argue with any of this? Long as I bake and cook up new things, I’ll have it in me to take somethin’ to someone, wherever they may be. It’s a way of living I like, and when someone knocks on my door with a warm coffeecake in hand, I’ll tell you, it’s no small thing. An invitation to life, feels like. A welcome to the world, even though I’ve been here a good long while. Keepin’ the Main Thing the Main Thing. Here’s something to say, “I see you. I care about you. Eat and be merry.”
Looks complicated, I know, but take ‘er slow and you’ll find this pie is off the beaten path and definitely worth the time.
Earl Grey Cream Pie
Sugar cookie crust:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups flour
2 1/2 cups whole milk
3 individual Earl Grey tea bags
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
3 T packed cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
2 T unsalted butter, room temperature
Home-whipped cream, for topping
In a large bowl using a handheld electric mixer, beat together the butter, sugar and salt on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula and add the egg. Mix on medium until the egg is fully incorporated, about 2 minutes. Scrape down the side of the bowl again and add the flour, 1/4 cup at a time, mixing after each addition. Form the dough into a large ball, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.
Press the dough into a 9-inch pie plate, evenly so it’s 1/4-inch thick all the way around and up the side. Prick the bottom and side with a fork and chill, unwrapped, in the freezer until it is frozen, about 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the middle position. Take the crust from the freezer, line it with parchment and fill it with pie weights. Bake until the side is golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Remove the weights and liner and bake 5 minutes more. Let cool.
For the filling, bring the milk to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, 10 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the tea bags to the hot milk. Set aside and let the tea steep for 30 minutes. Remove the three tea bags from the cooled milk and whisk in the egg yolks. In a medium saucepan whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt.
Whisk the milk mixture into the sugar mixture until there are no lumps. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture comes to a low simmer and begins to thicken, about 8 minutes. Continue cooking for about 1 minute, whisking constantly and scraping the sides of the pan until the mixture begins to boil. Still whisking constantly, let it boil for a full minute, then remove it from the heat.
Add the butter and whisk until it is completely melted and the mixture is smooth. Pour the Earl Grey cream into the prebaked crust and, while still hot, cover it with plastic wrap to prevent a film from forming on the top. Refrigerate the pie until the filling has set, at least 4 hours. Before serving, remove the plastic wrap and top with the whipped cream. Serve cold. Serves 6 to 8.
Made a custard pie on Wednesday and it was not bad. This time around I made it with a cookie crust and sprinkled it with nutmeg, and my, was it ever just right. I’ve been craving lighter foods these days, not the heavy cakes and pie and gravies of winter. Light foods, with lemon and pistachios and creams. Sangria, too, and berries. You know.
Been craving a vacation as well, somewhere with a fine landscape and some little shops in a little town, and new things to try and buy. Mr. S isn’t as big a fan of travel; he’s more about the “Staycation” they call it. You know, where you hop in the car a few days in a row and do something local and fun. County fairs and trying out a new restaurant and a paddleboat ride down the river and such. I’m all for that, too, but for me there’s something refreshing about boarding a plane and leavin’ home behind.
We’ve been having our summer plans conversation this week, and we’ve got visits to the cabin on the calendar, along with a family reunion, a wedding and a fishing trip up on Lake Superior.
There are a few musical events on there as well, and when I gently suggested perhaps we might visit Ireland again, or Scotland, or take a train across Canada, Mr. S did not say no. He said, “Perhaps.” He says that often in response to my suggestions, and it opens up a world of possibility. It means I have time to convince him should I choose to, and I do, and I will, if things go right.
I’ve never been a hot weather fan when it comes to taking a trip. I’m all about cooler places where there’s hiking and a mug of coffee waiting and museums and art and amazing new food to eat. So I’ll work on that, and perhaps he will agree to a trip to Alaska, even. We could fish there, and wander about and drive through the Chugach Mountains where I went with my father not long ago. Send home some fish, too, so we might feast on salmon and halibut awhile.
In the meantime, I plan to get a fishing license, just in case. And some sunscreen. And a straw hat. I lost my hat somewhere along the way, and hope someone found it and is wearing it as I write. Someone who likes adventure, and wandering gardens, and rides in an old rowboat. Someone who gets lost now and then, but doesn’t get rattled, and might find useful an old straw hat when searching for the road back home.
This crust is a nice companion to any number of pie fillings, especially cream pies or those with fruit. Try a sprinkle of nutmeg in the crust to make it a bit of an adventure.
Sugar Cookie Pie Crust
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Beat together the butter, sugar and salt until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the side of the bowl with a rubber spatula and add the egg. Mix until the egg is fully incorporated. Scrape down the side of the bowl again and add the flour, 1/4 cup at a time, mixing after each addition until everything just comes together. Form the dough into a large ball, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.
Press the dough into a 9-inch pie plate, making sure to press it evenly so it’s 1/4-inch thick all the way around and up the side. Prick the bottom and side with a fork and chill, unwrapped, in the freezer until it is frozen through, at least 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the middle position. Take the crust directly from the freezer, line it with parchment paper and fill it with pie weights. Bake until the side is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the weights and liner and bake an additional 5 minutes. Let cool before making the filling.
Made some orange rolls Tuesday and they were not bad. Got up a bit early, had a hankering, and BOOM! – two hours later, there they were. All baked and glazed and still a bit warm. It’s still cool enough outside for warm rolls, I say, but my, those birds are making sounds. My favorite thing about Spring – right up there with the smell of fresh grass and the breeze on my skin– is the song of birds as I work in the kitchen.
What goes into our ears is, in my mind, as important as what goes into our mouths, and Spring is good for that. The wind in the trees, the sounds of people out mowing and working in their yards, children laughing on the playground, the waves crashing the shore of the lake, the hum of cars on dry asphalt, the whines and thumps of garage doors opening and closing, the neighbor on his deck strumming on his guitar, the chimes on Mrs. Johnson’s front porch, the creak of the porch swing and the rattle and slam of the screen door, the splash of lemonade on ice. Such a lovely break from the long silences of winter.
‘Bout now I’m wondering where we put the hammocks. Bought two of them at summer’s end last year, and it’s nearing time to string ‘em up out in the trees at the edge of the woods. There’s something about the thought of an afternoon nap out there under filtered light, the wind blowing gentle and birds all ‘round, that calms the anxious moments in an ordinary day.
Whoever thought up the hammock deserves a round of applause. I’m thinking it was someone on a long journey who saw two solid trees and joined them with rope and a blanket and took a long-needed rest, suspended there above the wintergreen berries and old oak leaves from last autumn’s fall. Someone who knew, in his or her heart, what people often need. To be suspended awhile, to feel cradled, to sway to and fro under a sky of soft blue, where clouds cast occasional shadows and the sound of wind in tall grass is a lullaby all its own.
Here’s another one from back in the day, the very recipe my mother made on Saturdays when the sky was cloudy and spring blew in with a chill.
Orange Cinnamon Rolls
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (105-115 degrees)
1 1/2 tsp orange zest
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 T butter, melted
3 -3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 T sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 T butter, softened
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 T orange juice
1 T orange zest (optional)
1 T vanilla extract
Dissolve yeast in warm water in large bowl. Add orange peel, orange juice, sugar, salt, egg, butter and 1 1/2 c of the flour. Beat 30 seconds on low, scraping bowl constantly; increase speed to medium, beat 2 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Stir in enough of the remaining flour to make dough easy to handle.
Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead 5 minutes and dough is smooth and elastic.
Cover; let rise in warm place until double, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours (dough is ready if an indentation remains when dough is touched).
Punch dough down and, on a lightly floured surface, roll into a rectangle 15×9.”
Spread w/ 1 T butter and sprinkle w/ combined 2 T sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon. Roll up, beginning at one of the long sides; pinch edge of dough into roll to seal well; stretch to make roll even. Cut roll into 15 slices about 1″ wide. Place slices slightly apart in a greased oblong baking pan, 9×13 pan or in greased muffin cups. Cover and let rise until double, about 30 minutes. Bake in a 375 degree preheated oven until rolls are golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes.
Mix together confectioner’s sugar, orange juice, orange peel, and vanilla; frost while warm.
Recipe is from Betty Crocker’s “Breads” cookbook, published in 1974, and is easily doubled.
Made a bee sting cake on Monday and it was not bad. A new recipe, and oh my, is it good. I have been craving honey lately – pouring it on Irish oats and mixing it in with tea – and when I came across that cake recipe, I was all in. I think it’s good to add something new to the menu now and then, even as a habit and regularly, and that cake is a fine example. Because my word for this year is “Life,” I’ve been thinking up all kinds of new things to add to my life, too, to round out the corners and shine it up a bit. Really LIVING a life includes letting go of some things, too, and that list is a bit more challenging.
I have let go of cleaning the entire house every Saturday, something I’ve done most of my life, and I’m finding it doesn’t need that kind of attention since the kids left and I’ve grown older. Now I focus more on cleaning up as I go, and no longer give an entire day each week to gathering up the dust. It’s futile, in a way, if you think about it. I mean, we live on a planet made of dust and who are we to think we can keep a house dust-free?
I’ve let go of sitting down to a meal at the dining room table each night. Another routine kept while the kids were around more, and it was healthful and important to do each night. Now, though, Mr. S and I have been a bit creative at dinnertime. Sometimes we sit at the island in the kitchen. Sometimes we even stand. We’ve been eating out on the deck now and then, and down in the family room while watching the news, and sometimes we skip dinner and go right to dessert. Amen to that. I’m finding what’s important isn’t so much a big spread of food; what’s important is a break and conversation, and sometimes a loaf of bread and some wine and cheese and apples does the trick.
I’ve let go of wearing makeup each day. Mr. S thinks I’m a “looker” (ha) without it, and putting on mascara has never been a process I enjoy. Now I wash my face and put on a bit of blush (or pinch my cheeks a few times) and some lipstick, and I’m good to go. I spend less time in the shower and more in the bath and, let me tell you and I hope you know, a good long bath can be a holiday in itself.
Let go last week of all the clothes I haven’t worn in the last year, and two boxes of books I’ve read and likely won’t read again. Let go of everything expired in the cupboards and fridge, and a whole bunch of tax papers and old receipts and birthday cards from over the years. I’m certainly not done; are we ever done letting go? Thing is, every time you let go of a thing, something takes its place.
My plan, before summer’s heat arrives, is to go through this house from end to end, corner to corner, and let go of a good hundred pounds or two of things neither practical or loved, and replace each with time or space or something new. Ways to make more interesting this aging Life of mine, shine it up, let go of the detritus and add a bit of gleam. It’s possible, you know, to make it all more meaningful. Just takes some time and space, and thoughtfulness. All right there for your wide-open arms.
This one I served still warm, with some homemade whipped cream on the side. I’m thinking it’ll work just fine for a summer dinner on the deck, and ice cream, after a meal of grilled brats and a big ol’ bowl of potato salad.
German Bee Sting Cake
1 stick plus 6 T butter, softened, divided
3/4 cup honey, divided
2 tsp vanilla extract, divided
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup sugar
1 3/4 cups plus 1T flour
1 T baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 (3.4-ounce) package Jell-O instant vanilla pudding and pie filling mix
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Coat bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with cooking spray, and line bottom with wax paper; set aside.
In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, melt 6 T butter and 1/2 cup honey. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in 1 tsp vanilla and the almonds; let cool.
In a large bowl, beat remaining 1 stick butter and the sugar until creamy. Add remaining 1/4 cup honey, the eggs, and remaining 1 tsp vanilla; beat until thoroughly mixed.
In a medium bowl, combine 1-3/4 cups flour, baking powder, and salt; mix well. Gradually beat flour mixture and milk into batter until smooth. Spread batter evenly in pan. Sprinkle remaining 1 T flour on top, and lightly press down with fingers. Pour almond mixture evenly over flour.
Place pan on baking sheet and bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool. Remove springform pan ring, invert cake onto baking sheet, and remove bottom of pan and wax paper. Invert cake top side up onto platter. Slice cake in half horizontally.
In a medium bowl, beat heavy cream until stiff. Add pudding mix and beat until thoroughly combined. Spread mixture onto bottom half of cake. Place top of cake over cream mixture. Serve or refrigerate until ready to serve.