Saturday, January 19, 2008

TJ-forsaken Abilene's other joys

I boarded a plane a week ago today and sat with my head turned toward my left shoulder. There it remained as I gazed at the raindrops sitting on my small window and dancing on the pavement. We lifted off, and my vision shifted to the cozy grey film over dimly lit landmarks. I wanted one more glimpse of Puget Sound. But it didn't take long for the layers of clouds to build up and overwhelm the lights of the early morning traffic along I-5. Seattle was gone.

Don't get the idea that I am now here shuffling my feet and grumbling about the straw-like grass. Abilene has presented the excellent challenge for me, especially as an artist, to call forth the beautiful. And often I have found it in the faces of the people (which, I guess, means I have to work on my portrait skills).

A dear friend's face smiled at me from within her car as she pulled up to the terminal at DFW to fetch me home. A familiar roommate face was in our little apartment to welcome me back. Then a new-but-old face (the kind with features perfect for drawing) arrived with bags to fill her awaiting room. And our newly formed trio became an unexpected quartet with a face from India!

It has been a wonderful first week...seeing friends again; getting to live with three lovely, diversified girls; having just enough homework to ignore it all until Thursday night; and, now, enjoying a three day weekend.

Having a break today allowed me to spend time in the kitchen and produce something of interest for you. The past six days have been many delicious but relatively unoriginal salads, apples with the Trader Joe's Almond Butter I smuggled away to TJ-forsaken Abilene, roasted sweet potatoes, and other things you have likely also whipped up yourself sans recipe.

But how about this: how about a sweet treat called "Honey Crunch"? Have you made something very nutty, sweetened with the intense home-y flavor of honey, mixed with coconut and currants, and producing a dark rich brown color from cocoa or carob powder? These refrigerator sweets were a pleasant answer to my sweet tooth and a nostalgic journey back to my mom's kitchen (where, if you were in search of something sweet, you were first handed fruit and then Honey Crunch).

So here it is...and you can anticipate some exciting new things this semester. With a roommate making chapatis nightly (yes, those are chapati-making utensils below!), another growing an indoor herb garden, and sushi being rolled "just because," I have a high standard to live up to and many exciting things to learn.

Hm, did I just get excited to be back in Abilene? Yes. I am.

Honey Crunch
Another recipe from Mom's family cookbook

1 cup honey
1 cup peanut butter (oh yeah, I have a jar of this from Trader Joe's too -- I halved the recipe because I couldn't bear to see so much of my precious peanut butter disappear at once!)
1 cup cocoa or carob powder (I believe my family has always used carob)
1 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup flaked coconut
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup raisins (I used currants; you can use cranberries, blueberries, etc.)
1/4 cup wheat germ (optional)

1. In a large saucepan heat honey and peanut butter, stirring constantly just till smooth.

2. Remove from heat; stir in cocoa/carob powder. Mix well.

3. Add remaining ingredients.

4. Press into 8" square pan. Chill. Cut into squares. Store in refrigerator.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Aw, traditions.

This is long overdue, and I apologize. I mean, New Year's Eve was a whole eight days ago. A distant memory to many (myself included).

I have my list of excuses lined up, though. You see, my sister had to leave town on the 2nd, so our time together was precious (and Elise does not consider watching me blog to be "fun"). And my mom and I have been on The Office-marathon-mode, laughing the hours of our evenings away. And my room has turned into one heaping pile after another (the bed included; the blankets are heaped into a pile as to keep the articles on the floor visible and then smoothed out each night to the best of my ability so I have some warmth to snuggle under). I could go on, but it stops at the bedroom because that is where I lost my camera...I can't imagine how.

When it comes to my own bedroom, it's bizarre how my neat habits go out the window every time I come home for a holiday. I still do the dishes (and take showers), but for some reason I don't care whether my carpet is visible -- as my mom puts it, I let everything "go to pot." (The first time my sister and I heard my mom use this expression we had to suppress a giggle because mothers like my own never use such slang words as "pot"...excuse my immaturity. That was a long time ago.)

Anyway, I found my camera today under some socks and books. On the dear ol' thing were some pictures of the rum cake I mentioned in my previous post, the rum cake that I anticipate from January 1 till December 31.

My mom has been making this cake since we lived in New Zealand. Over there Christmas and summer collided, and we often found our family of six piling into our stationwagon to camp near the beach over New Year's Eve. I have many happy memories of this time. The sand dunes, hearing about the wild turkey chases my brothers would go on, playing in family-size tents that, at the time, felt as big as circus mom had to remind me, though, of how the rum cake tradition came about.

She said that it seemed practical to make a recipe that became better with age, since she would have to make it about a week in advance and bring it to the campsite. Also, she had four young kids who thought that lighting a cake on fire was the most funnest, coolest thing in the world.

So, since 1990 we have been lighting a cake on fire on New Year's Eve (or sometimes a night or two before, since growing older has landed us at our own New Year's celebrations). From the age of four I loved watching the hot blue flames in the ladle of rum that my dad lit and then poured over the cake, but it took several more years to appreciate the full flavor of the cake. I would always avoid the edges of my slice because that's where the rum tended to pool and my throat to burn (not that there was any alcohol left after the heat of the flame).

I have to admit, though, that I have come to love every inch of this cake by now. It's a regular, dense pound cake that looks beautiful in its bundt-pan form and is flecked with tangy apricots. The outside is coated with a sweet rum apricot glaze, and then the additional rum is poured on top at the stroke of midnight.

This year our rum cake made the journey to Olympia, Washington to be shared with relatives. My sister, mom, and I went down the weekend before New Year's, and since we had individual plans for the upcoming holiday, brought along the cake. (My mom reduced it to a loaf pan for the first time because our crowd is annually growing smaller.)

Apricot Rum Cake
from Mom's family cookbook

Makes 10 servings.

1/4 cup dried apricot halves, coursely chopped
3/4 cup golden rum (divided 3 times)
1-16 oz. can apricot halves, drained
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1/2 cup sour cream
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups sugar
3 cups unsifted flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1-12 oz. jar apricot preserves

1. In small bowl, combine chopped dried apricots, and 1/4 cup rum; let stand for 30 minutes.

2. Heat oven to 325°F. Generously grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.

3. In food processor or blender, process apricot halves until pureed. Stir in dried apricots with rum.

4. In a large bowl, with electric mixer, beat butter, sour cream, eggs, vanilla, and sugar until well blended.

5. Add flour, salt, baking soda, and apricot puree mixture. Beat at low speed just until combined, scraping side of bowl frequently.

6. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 1-1/4 hours or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan 5 minutes. Loosen edges; invert and unmold cake onto flameproof plate with rim.

7. In small saucepan, heat appricot preserves. Strain and stir in 1/4 cup rum. Brush apricot glaze over cake every few minutes while it is cooling until all glaze is used. Set aside or store until ready to serve.

8. If desired, in long-handled metal ladle, gently warm remaining rum (1/4 cup) over burner until vapors rise. Ignite vapors and pour over cake. When flames subside, slice cake and serve.

Monday, January 7, 2008

One satisfied soul

It's Monday night, and I have four more days left in Washington. It always helps when the last week of vacation everyone around you starts back into their routine (Elise is back at school, so is Mom). That way I get an itch to pack up my bags and head back to my other life.

Right now I'm sitting in a quiet house not far from my mom's new neighborhood, a familiar house of people I love. Two little girls (who are becoming less and less little - the older one reminded me as I was tucking her in that soon they won't even need a babysitter!), they sleep in their beds and their Christmas tree lights still twinkle in the corner of my vision and reflect against the windowpane.

It's the friends in this town, and the smell of the marina, that make me want to stay just a little longer. I haven't had much time to revisit favorite spots, like I would have hoped, except for the night I got away in my sister's car and wound up at the Chrysalis and boardwalk from Fairhaven to Boulevard Park. I love that little area. I strolled into the Chrysalis and sat down on a couch in the lounge like any guest would. Legs crossed and journal on my lap, I idly scribbled or stared into the glowing fireplace. After a while I walked back through the big doors and headed down toward the boardwalk. The rain lightly hit my hood, and I listened to the sound of my boot heels clicking against the wood planks. Then I stopped at the bottom of the long descent to the water and squinted into the misty darkness of Bellingham Bay. I just stood there for a while, until I couldn't stand the cold anymore. Once back in the car the rain picked up outside, and by turning off my music I discovered a much more enchanting rhythm upon the metal roof.

Just as beautiful as being alone outside in Bellingham, was being inside, smooshed between two crazily endearing (or endearingly crazy) children for a weekend. This particular 30-hour babysitting job left me with more memories to carry through another semester in Texas. We tickled, we painted, we skipped along the sidewalk downtown. There were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, dolls, dinosaurs, and pieces of couscous everywhere. At our highest point the three of us danced and jumped around to Daniel Bedingfield, and at our lowest we snoozed alongside each other in a big bed.

These snippets of time might not make much sense, or be particularly interesting to you, but I'm afraid that if I don't take the time to record them now they might slip away. Or I'll forget their magical the peace found on a still bay at night or sincere, innocent I-love-you's from childish lips.

Since the lighting of our traditional rum cake on New Year's Eve, there have not been many occasions to cook, so memories that I would normally post in the prelude t0 a recipe are here being replaced by stories that stand on their own. Food is a wonderful thing, but it won't get you out on a boardwalk in the rain, nor will it do as a substitute for love.

*the piano at my aunt and uncle's house, taken on a sweet little trip to visit them in Olympia.

*more memories to hold on to : The Temple Bar with Kierstin.