what today calls for

There are some days when you just need to make a spice cake.

Wait. That is probably not true. Let me re-phrase.

Today, I needed to make a spice cake.

This afternoon, while driving home from a trip to deliver a medication to the nurses at Paco’s assisted living unit and stopping to have a document notarized stating that my power of attorney for him is in effect, after a morning spent with him at a new specialist, I was seized with a desire to eat spice cake.

It’s not one of those things you can easily buy at the supermarket or bakery, so I pulled out my Betty Crocker cookbook when I got home and set to work.

Why spice cake? It is an old-time favorite that fills the kitchen with a wonderful aroma as it bakes. When B and I were married in the early ’80s, I chose a spice cake with buttercream icing as our wedding cake, a daring choice in the age of white wedding cakes with sugary white icing. I still love the taste of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove and find them comforting.

Spice cake stands on its own. It doesn’t need to be layered and frosted. A simple, square pan suffices.

A bonus bit of nostalgia was also involved today.

One of the things I brought home from cleaning out the kitchen in Paco’s apartment in independent living was a set of RevereWare metal bowls that Nana had used when we were growing up and kept all these years. While I had my own set from when B and I first set up house, my mother’s were heavier and the largest bowl of the three was larger than my own set.

It was this largest bowl that I used today to mix my spice cake.

It’s in the oven now.

I have several dozen other things I should be doing right now, but I am instead writing this post, thinking about my parents and home and the passage of time and what is important and the meaning of making spice cake for my family.

And breathing in the scent of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.

another day

So, as I write this, it is December 25th which we celebrate as Christmas, but 2020 is very different.

I haven’t been able to post much this month, in large part because we have been dealing with some health difficulties with my father, known here as Paco. He spent five days in the hospital and, earlier this week, was admitted to the skilled nursing and rehabilitation unit in the senior community where he lives.

Because of COVID restrictions, no visitors are allowed but we have been in touch by phone. Before he went to rehab, we did have a family early-Christmas celebration, but we sent a couple of small gifts to his room so he would have something to open today.

We hope to videochat with daughter E and family in London UK this afternoon, which will be evening there. They have already posted photos of granddaughters ABC and JG in their holiday attire. Last night, we were able to watch the Christmas Eve mass from their church. While it is sad that we were not able to see them at all in 2020, technology does help.

Spouse B, daughter T, and I are spending the day at home with scaled-back gift exchange and lots of our family favorite foods, fresh-baked date nut and cranberry breads for breakfast and lasagna from Nana’s recipe with homemade braided herb bread for dinner and apple-blackberry and an outrageously good brown-sugar and maple pecan pie for dessert. B enjoys cooking and baking special meals, so he is taking the lead with all this while I act assitant. It’s nice to have familiar things in such a topsy-turvy year.

Unfortunately, the huge snowstorm we had last week that dropped forty inches (one meter) of snow on us has set us up for flood warnings today. We got about three inches (8 cm) of rain yesterday and overnight, which, coupled with at least another couple of inches from snowmelt, has led to flooding. The Susquehanna is expected to crest tonight at major flood stage level in our town. While our home should be okay, we are concerned for our neighbors who live closer to the river.

I know for many Christians around the world, this Christmas is very different than the usual celebrations, but the underlying message of peace and good will to all is still there to bring comfort to us in these troubled times. I share wishes for peace and good will, for good health and love with all of you; whatever your personal faith or philosophy might be, these gifts are universal.

Election Day

B and I baked an election day pie early this morning with an important message: VOTE! We did early voting last week and will be watching television coverage as the returns begin to come in this evening, by which time our tummies will be full of our fruits-of-the-forest pie. Today’s rendition is made with apples, raspberries, blueberries, and rhubarb.

in the pandemic kitchen

Many people are discovering cooking and baking from scratch during these past weeks of sheltering at home and less frequent trips to the store. The demand for basic ingredients has been so high that is still difficult to reliably find flour, yeast, sugar, milk, and eggs. There are lots of stories of people learning to make sourdough bread and to concoct meals with what they have on hand. Some people, who had always bought already-prepared meals or restaurant food, are finding out that they enjoy making their own dishes and baked goods and even find it relaxing.

At our house, we were accustomed to doing our own cooking and baking, although some things have changed. I’m definitely being more intentional with meal planning, both to make sure I have the ingredients on hand and to accommodate everyone’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Before B began working at home, he often ate lunch with friends; now, I try to have leftovers or some other options available for him.

Another thing that is different is that B is doing more cooking and baking. He actually enjoys kitchen work more than I do and finds it fun to make recipes that are more involved. I make bread in the bread machine; he recently made an apricot-raisin bread that took three days to make. He tends to wake up early and frequently makes breakfast treats – muffins, scones, even Chelsea buns. He does all the family grilling and has several special dishes that he prepares, including chicken marsala and Nana’s lasagna. I tend to make more old-style recipes, like meatloaf, pot roast, and soups.

Some people are also discovering things like pickling and making stock, things that I learned from my mom when I was growing up in rural New England. Of course, if you had a turkey, you would make stock from the carcass. Back then, it was considered frugal; now, it’s about better utilization of resources. I will admit, though, that now I will make a small batch of refrigerator bread-and-better pickles, rather than the dozens of jars we used to make and process in Ball jars and hot-water bath when cucumbers were in season. The pickles are still very tasty!

In some ways, my freezer and pantry resemble the ones from my childhood much more now than they used to. Because our house growing up was twenty miles from the nearest grocery store and there was a big chunk of the year when you had to worry about snow and ice on the road, we always had a stock of shelf-stable and frozen foods on hand. Now, in case we need to quarantine, I have followed the recommendation to have at least two weeks of food on hand, plus what we need to eat for at least a week or more so that grocery shopping would only happen every one to two weeks. Fortunately, I did this before the panic buying set in. A hundred days into the pandemic restrictions here in our part of upstate New York, our food distribution system has still not stabilized. Supply of some staples is spotty and a few things have been impossible to find for weeks. For example, I finally had to order a pound of yeast online in April; two months later, I still have not seen any in stores. My latest shopping triumph was finding quick-cooking tapioca, important this time of year for thickening strawberry-rhubarb and peach pies.

I’m not sure how long our current pattern of cooking, baking, and eating will persist. We have been ordering carryout from some of our favorite local restaurants, hoping to keep them going. Now that our area is in stage two of re-opening, outdoor dining is allowed, but not many restaurants here are set up for that. In a later phase, restaurants will be allowed to re-open indoor space, but probably only at 25-50% capacity. I’m guessing that we may still order carry-out rather than trying to dine-in.

The other wild card in all this is not knowing how long B will be working from home. If/when he needs to go back to the office, his return home in the evening will be too unpredictable for him to make weeknight dinners, so I will be back to more solo cooking. I had done that for years, so, of course, I can do it again, but I’ll miss having B here. Maybe it is a preview of his eventual retirement…

a package!

Like many other places during this pandemic, our stores have been out of yeast for weeks.

I usually keep a jar of bread machine yeast in the refrigerator. Besides using it in the machine, B sometimes uses it to make treats like Chelsea buns. As my jar was running low, every time I went to a store, I would check to see if I happened to catch a new shipment coming in, but either my timing was never right or there wasn’t any in the warehouses to send to the stores.

I decided to look online. I couldn’t find any jars or packets, but finally found a one-pound bag of Fleischmann’s instant yeast. I wasn’t used to the term “instant yeast” but apparently it is the same as rapid-rise or bread machine yeast. The yeast is sourced from Canada, so perhaps instant yeast is the term most often used there.

It took over a week to arrive, but now we should be supplied for a long time, given that this bag is equivalent to four of the jars I usually buy.

The pandemic has changed my perspective of time so much. I admit to thinking maybe this yeast will last until we have a vaccine available to the public so that the pandemic will be well and truly over.

Of course, this won’t be a miracle like the story of Elijah and the widow in 1Kings 17, where the flour and oil did not run out until the drought was over, but it does symbolize to me that same sense of perseverance, that call to not be afraid while we wait, watch, and work for better times.

holiday greetings

Brent's Christmas Chelsea Buns

We’ve all been trying to recover from our colds and get ready for our increasingly simplified Christmas celebration. My talented-baker-spouse B felt well enough this Christmas Eve morning to be up early and baking. He made these awesome Chelsea buns based on a Paul Hollywood recipe. They are delicious! Bonus: There are so many buns and so few of us that we will have them for Christmas morning, too.

May the light and hope of Hanukkah and the peace and good will of Christmas settle on people of all nations, tongues, and beliefs.

SoCS: triple play

Yesterday, ABC helped me make bread in our bread machine. It was a way to keep her occupied while her mom was resting. First, we had to weigh the flour using our kitchen scale. Then, she helped me put in the salt, sugar, and butter. Next, I measured the milk. I was using Fairlife milk, which is lactose free and higher in protein. Unlike other kinds of lactose free milk, Fairlife is lactose free due to being ultra-filtered. I think it tastes better than dairy products that are done with lactase. I used to use buttermilk powder, too, but I think it contains whey and other powdered milk components. At any rate, it was enough lactose to bother some of my family members, so I stopped using it. Finally, I put the pan in the machine and the yeast in the container on top. ABC couldn’t help with that part, but she did press the button to start the machine after I programmed it. Four hours later, we had a loaf of delicious bread and the house smelled wonderful.
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Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “weigh/way/whey.” I get bonus points for using all three – not that anyone is keeping score. My stream of consciousness today also seems to be anti-paragraph. Please join in the fun! You can find out more here:  https://lindaghill.com/2019/09/06/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-sept-7-19/

SoCS: dough

Today, E and I took ABC to her first theater experience, a performance of Sesame Street Live. The theme was magic, but a lot of the story revolved around things that turned out to be science. One of those things was making cookie dough out of flour, butter, eggs, and sugar and adding heat to make it into cookies.

My other dough experience of the week was making pie dough for a birthday pie for Paco who turned 94 on Tuesday. I wanted to make him a prune-apricot pie. Unfortunately, it had been a loooong time since I had baked a pie from dried fruit. And I was super tired because I had been up at night with ABC and then had trouble getting back to sleep. I realized too late that I had forgotten the salt in the crust. D’oh! I also didn’t put as much water in the fruit when I stewed it as I should have, so the apricots didn’t soften as much as I would have liked and I didn’t have very much juice to thicken. Still, it all worked out okay as Paco enjoyed it very much.

I thought that doing an unsweetened pie might also appeal to Nana, who hasn’t had much appetite lately, but it didn’t sound good to her. She is still eating breakfast, but usually not much for lunch and supper and she doesn’t like things that are too sweet. One of the hospice rules is that she can eat whatever she wants and we are following that. We have gotten some coffee ice cream to keep on hand because it was always one of her favorites, the bitterness of the coffee cutting the sugar. We’ll see if she wants to try some someday soon.
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Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “dough/d’oh”. Join us! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2019/03/29/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-march-30-19/

SoCS: cookie time!

There are several tins of delicious cookies sitting on my kitchen counter.

Although I can bake, my spouse B long ago took over making the bulk of the Christmas cookies. Right now, we have cinnamon pizzelles, gingerbread decorated with icing, shortbreads, and cherry pistachio biscotti.

Yum!

Our cookie season is extended more than usual this year because we started with St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6, celebrating with E and ABC before they left for London. We continued our celebration last weekend with my older sister and her husband and we are expecting my younger sister and her family the day after Christmas.

B has made multiple batches of some of the cookies this year, but is making fewer kinds than he has in some years. We often have pfeffernuesse, pecan puffs, and different flavors of pizzelles in our assortment. Also, we sometimes make sugar cookies, including some that look like Reddy Kilowatt in honor of Paco’s many years of service at the New England Power Company.

This year, though, I am happy with fewer types of cookies. Fewer choices to make! It’s hard to have one of each when there are eight or nine types. 😉
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Linda’s prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday this week is “tin.” Join us! Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2018/12/21/the-friday-reminder-and-prompt-for-socs-dec-22-18/

strawberry pies

In my region, it is strawberry season. While strawberries from far away are available in supermarkets year-round, we almost never buy them, preferring to wait for the short but sweet local strawberry season.

When the wild strawberries in our lawn begin to ripen, it is time to head to the farmstands for quarts of flavorful, ripe berries. (It used to be time to head to the pick-your-own farms in the area but lack of time and an aging body have put an end to spending some early morning hours picking berries and avoiding slugs.)

In the early part of the season, I always make a fresh strawberry pie, using a recipe that my mom, known as Nana here at TJCM, made. It originated in a leaflet from the farm that we used to visit with her during childhood to pick strawberries. My copy was written out in Nana’s elegant cursive on a recipe card among those that she gifted to me when B and I married. We shared this year’s fresh strawberry pie topped with whipped cream with her and the family over at Mercy House, the hospice residence where Nana is now living.

As the season progresses and the berries need to be used more quickly, I move on to recipes that involve cooked berries. Last week, I made one of my favorites, strawberry rhubarb pie. I tried something different this time, using pastry cut-outs instead of a full top crust, hoping that the filling in the extra-deep pie plate would cook through without soaking the crust.
36427111_10212160706838382_6712770018037202944_n It worked! Again, the family gathered at Mercy House to enjoy pie with Nana and Paco.

Strawberry season is always a blessing, but this year even more so. Making more sweet memories is a precious gift.