Tag Archives: food

gratitude cake

I started this post several months ago, and for some reason I just never finished it. Last week, in a series of serendipitous events, I remembered it, and so now I’m sitting down to finish the first story, and start the second one.

The last thing I made for my grandfather was this cake. It was several years ago, and we were visiting over the Labor Day weekend, and I brought a plum torte with me. It was sort of a birthday cake, although I’m sure we probably also had homemade ice cream that my parents made. It’s probably one of the few things I ever made for him to eat. I didn’t cook much as a kid, and I’ve lived away for all of my adult life. When we visit family we are usually fed, not the other way around. When he would visit us in the early years of our marriage we would always eat out somewhere around town – his treat! – and I wasn’t much of a cook in those years either.

Still, so many of my memories of my grandfather center around the table. There are holidays and birthdays and all the food traditions of home, of course. But the ones that I think about when I think of him are simpler. At least once a week over the course of my summer internships during college, I’d leave the office at noon and cut through a few neighborhoods to his house for lunch. My grandmother would make me a sandwich, and my aunt would fill one of their tupperware tumblers (avocado green with a white rim at the top) with ice and water from the front of the refrigerator. The water would smell like tupperware and my grandparents’ kitchen. I took a drink from a plastic tumbler the other day and it all came rushing back – it’s such a signature smell to me. 

There are just a couple of weeks when Italian prune plums are in the stores, and I’ve learned to buy them all when they arrive. They show up near the start of September, right before my grandfather’s birthday on the 4th, and my niece’s birthday just a few days later, on the 6th. This year I bought over 150 of them, and I started making a couple of these plum tortes a night. The house smelled delicious for a week or more. I began to think of them as a gratitude cake. Each year, to honor my niece’s birthday, we do acts of kindness in her memory. I brought this torte with me everywhere on her birthday – sharing it with people that are special to me, people doing work we appreciate, people we love.

I made so many tortes that I decided to freeze a few. I served a couple at the Open House reception I throw each year in October. They were a hit. I love to share food with others. I love to watch people smile when they eat it, to turn and tell their friends to grab a slice before it’s gone. One third grade boy started hanging out with me after he finished his slice. He asked me a lot of questions about the ingredients, and how I made it. He told me it was delicious. He brought his mother in to share a slice. She’s a new friend to me, and I love that we stood together for a few minutes and talked while she ate. She mentioned the cake again at a birthday party last month. She’s still thinking about it, and that makes me smile.

We had two cakes left in the freezer, but when M picked up some pasta orders from a school fundraiser last Friday, our freezer got very, very full. He sorted and rearranged everything, and managed to fit it all in. But when I opened the door later that weekend, I noticed the cakes sitting on the top of the pile, and thought I’d put one in the refrigerator to thaw. Maybe for a Tuesday night, post parent-teacher conference treat. Maybe to throw in the car for our trip to spend Thanksgiving with family. Maybe for a little bit of late summer in November.

Tuesday night conferences never happened. M called me around four that afternoon and told me that he was headed to radiology for a CAT scan for a suspected ruptured appendix. Suspicions were confirmed, and our evening plans and travel plans and holiday plans all came to screeching halt. I raced around to pick up the girls, rushing to get us all back to the hospital to see M before he was taken into surgery. But the surgery had to wait – there are necessary interventions first. We sat up most of the night, piled onto a tiny hospital bed, and then a second one. Later, the girls and I climbed into one bed at home to sleep for a couple of hours. I snuck out before dawn to return. Hospital minutes drag on and on and on, and just when you nod off for a moment, someone comes in to wake you up and talk some more. There was little sleep, and little eating.

Two years ago our Thanksgiving travel plans to visit M’s family abruptly changed when my grandfather fell ill and entered the ICU. We decided we needed to be there, and to provide some support and relief for my parents and my sister and her family (which included a newborn). We packed quickly, and I scooped up a stack of cookbooks on the way out the door. During the drive I mapped out a meal plan for the rest of the week, enough food to feed eleven people as they moved in and out of hospital watch and through those foggy first weeks of infant care. I wasn’t sure how much we could to do ease the burdens of those days, but I knew that I could make sure that everyone was fed, and had a table to sit down to each evening. I wasn’t cooking for my grandfather, although I longed for him to be sitting there at the table with us. But in a way I was. When we visited him in the hospital, my mother was telling him all about the food we had feasted on the night before. My husband was feeding him scrambled eggs, and coaxing him to drink some water, and he was listening to the description of our thrown together Thanksgiving while he ate. He seemed the most alert during that time. I think he knew we were all together, and understood the significance of that gathering.

Thanksgiving morning felt pretty heavy last week. We were all exhausted and disoriented. The fridge had been cleaned out in anticipation of our travels. We had planned to be fed for five days, and now we were home from the hospital, tired and off schedule, with no real appetite for anything. We thought we should get some fresh air, find some coffee (for me), stretch our legs a bit to get the blood pumping again. We went to the garden and stayed for a few hours until mid-afternoon. We searched for a few places that might be open on the holiday, but struck out everywhere. We headed home to make peanut butter sandwiches and call it a day. Everyone traipsed upstairs to watch the recorded Macy’s parade, and I started to dig through what was left in the fridge.

The first thing I saw was this cake. I put it out on a cake stand, and set it in the center of the table. The sunlight was streaming in the back window as I dove back into the fridge for more inspiration. I turned the oven on and tossed some squash and brussels sprouts onto a tray for roasting. I started some water to boil, and pulled out some of that new pasta in the freezer. I diced up a lone pretzel roll into bite size pieces to share. Raw veggies came out of the bin and into dishes. I poured pear juice into wine glasses for the girls. I called them all downstairs for sandwiches and surprised them with this.

And there in the center was that plum torte. One of a dozen or more. One that I first made years ago for my grandfather. One that I share every fall with others. A gratitude cake that showed up just when we needed it most.

on moments of time: (story)time: eat this poem by nicole gulotta


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“As for food, simple cooking dominates most days, like jam spooned into thick yogurt, a bowl of popcorn left on the coffee table, or beans smashed on bread. None of it is particularly noteworthy. Leftovers are placed in glass containers for tomorrow’s lunch, and scraps are scraped into the trash bin. Whole plums, celery stalks, and bunches of carrots in the bottom of the crisper go soft before we can use them. The remains of our meals are discarded like poem fragments we put into a file to look at when we’re in need of inspiration.

A poem stops time, keeping a moment suspended until we’re ready to revisit it. A good meal stops us too, however briefly, reminding us to savor every bite.” – Nicole Gulotta, Eat This Poem.

I’ve had this book in my hands for a month now, but I wanted to read through it all first, and cook from it as well, before I shared it with you. The month has been very busy, but I’ve pulled this book into my lap for five and ten minute stretches here and there, and we’ve been cooking from it all month. To be completely honest, it wasn’t the first time I’ve read or cooked with Nicole. Her blog of the same name is a staple in my life, and I consult her Literary City Guides first before planning any trip. I even got to test out some of the recipes in this book last year as Nicole was writing and editing her manuscript. I had to dig a little to find the photos I took during that time, and finally found this one.

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Our family tested four of Nicole’s recipes, and the Earl Grey Shortbread Cookies could be reason alone to purchase this cookbook. But don’t let it be.

The only recipe I made for just me was a simple Caesar salad with paprika croutons. I saw this photo and I can remember all the details of that Saturday afternoon. I was home from yoga, and the sun was streaming in the back window of the kitchen as it likes to do on the weekends. Everyone else was eating at the table while I prepped the ingredients; they were scattered again when I finished. I pulled the latest issue of Dwell out of the mail pile, and filled a water spotted glass two-thirds high before sitting down to eat. I ate the whole bowl, and helped myself to seconds. The afternoon stretched ahead of me, glass-spotted, sun-spotted. I packed the leftovers into glass containers for tomorrow’s lunch, and ate the scraps, folded down the corner of the magazine page, and set it aside to finish later.

…..

Pairing Nicole’s own rich food stories and kitchen experiments with poetry is the magic here. One night I had beets, and I started in an ordinary place – the index, scrolling my finger though the b’s to find inspiration. But another night I first opened and began to read Billy Collins’ writing about a pear, and dinner inspiration started there. Food is temporary, fleeting. A few moments on our counter, and then spent – eaten, stored, discarded. It meets us where we need it, and can be nothing more than that. Which makes the memory of a salad on a Saturday that much more surprising – and comforting. What else did I do that day? I’m not really sure, but I can still remember standing there at the counter, scraping croutons off the baking sheet, and eating scraps as I went.

…..

BASKETS

By Louise Gluck

From The Triumph of Achilles (1980)

1.
It is a good thing,
in the marketplace
the old woman trying to decide
among the lettuces,
impartial, weighing the heads,
examining
the outer leaves, even
sniffing them to catch
a scent of earth
of which, on one head,
some trace remains—not
the substance but
the residue—so
she prefers it to
the other, more
estranged heads, it
being freshest: nodding briskly at the vendor’s wife,
she makes this preference known,
an old woman, yet
vigorous in judgment.

2.
The circle of the world—
in its midst, a dog
sits at the edge of the fountain.
The children playing there,
coming and going from the village,
pause to greet him, the impulsive
loving interest in play,
in the little village of sticks
adorned with blue fragments of pottery;
they squat beside the dog
who stretches in the hot dust:
arrows of sunlight
dance around him.
Now, in the field beyond,
some great event is ending.
In twos and threes, boldly
swinging their shirts,
the athletes stroll away, scattering
red and blue, blue and dazzling purple
over the plain ground,
over the trivial surface.

3.
Lord, who gave me
my solitude, I watch
the sun descending:
in the marketplace
the stalls empty, the remaining children
bicker at the fountain—
But even at night, when it can’t be seen,
the flame of the sun
still heats the pavements.
That’s why, on earth,
so much life’s sprung up,
because the sun maintains
steady warmth at its periphery.
Does this suggest your meaning:
that the game resumes,
in the dust beneath
the infant god of the fountain;
there is nothing fixed,
there is no assurance of death—

4.
I take my basket to the brazen market,
to the gathering place.
I ask you, how much beauty
can a person bear? It is
heavier than ugliness, even the burden
of emptiness is nothing beside it.
Crates of eggs, papaya, sacks of yellow lemons—
I am not a strong woman. It isn’t easy
to want so much, to walk
with such a heavy basket, either
bent reed, or willow.

…..

Buy a copy of Eat This Poem for yourself, but then maybe for your mother next week, or the teachers who share poetry with you and your children, or the newlyweds just filling a first kitchen, or any others who feed your soul.


[Gift pairs well with the aforementioned cookies.]

baking notes

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Do you watch The Great British Baking Show on PBS? Several people recommended it to us during the last season, and we watched a few of those episodes. Quite by accident, we realized that Season 3 was up and running here in the US, and now we are recording the episodes to watch as a family. We typically have one show that we record and watch together – it’s usually This Old House episodes, or Amazing Race (with E, not F). GBBS is a really fun one to watch together. The girls are really into the technical aspects of the baking challenges, and we also appreciate that the tone of the show is really humorous and kind. There’s no backstabbing or vengeful plots. The tension comes from the very real stress that baking under pressure can produce on anyone, even a seasoned pro. It’s funny how invested we can get into a pie or cake even though its success is not a matter of life and death.

We’ve watched the first episode together, and after the final baking challenge (rifts on a Black Forest Cake), I made a Sweet Cherry Streusel Pie from the Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book. This was my second pie-try from this cookbook that I purchased in NYC this past March. The first pie was a rhubarb custard pie that did not set correctly the first day I made it, but after spending the night in the refrigerator, was delicious (though not so attractive). I actually decided to make two cherry pies, and would have made more if they didn’t take so much time!

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My first complaint about the book is the lack of weights for ingredients – particularly with fruit that isn’t sold by the cup but by the pound. I ended up overbuying cherries to the tune of three times as many as I needed. It’s hard for me to eyeball ten cups of cherries. So I bought thirty. I’m eating some now as I write this.

My second complaint is that I’m finding that the cooking times / temps tend to be a little on the high side. I’ve yet to master the perfect crust, not too dark or overbaked. But this was partly my problem too, because I tried to bake two pies at once, which did alter the overall baking time. I know better than this, but forged ahead anyway.

On the GBBS, one of the contestants added cardamom to the cherries in the Black Forest Cake, and one of the judges leaned over the counter to say “Be careful with the quantity – too much can make the finished product taste medicinal.” The girls walked into a kitchen filled with amazing cherry pie smells a few hours later, sniffing the air and complementing the process. I announced that there was cardamom in the pie, and the little one told me to “watch my quantities” and reiterated the medicinal threat, thereby securing her future access to all GBBS episodes whenever she wants to watch them. Even past her bedtime.

If you like the show, then you simply must read these recaps by Allison Robicelli on Food 52. They are hysterical. Don’t read them over lunch at work in your super quiet office.

I’m also completely in love with the drawings that illustrate the contestants’ baking plans for each challenge.

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Here’s an article on the artist for these drawings. I would like to know how to go about getting this job on future seasons. I’m not joking.

One more baking note for the day – I’m taking full advantage of grownup camp to hit up some local bakeries that I don’t make it to on a typical morning. Pint Size Bakery’s new location is delightful, and you simply must get there this week to pick up a Strawberry Rhubarb Brown Butter Crumb Cake. It makes an excellent accompaniment to this week’s GBBS episode – because trust me – you are going to get hungry!

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