Foodie Tuesday: Madame X’s Birthday Cake

Photo: Birthday Cupcakes for Madame XJust a little treat for a friend on the anniversary of her birth. And, since she shares her natal day with my dear brother-in-law, separated at birth by mere decades, I send a virtual cake to him, too, despite the separation of mere thousands of miles. Happy birthday to both!

Malted Buttermilk Cakes with Strawberry-Peach Buttercream
Servings: 24 cupcakes, or [as I made] a dozen + a small sheet cake. Preheat your oven to 350°F/177°C.

The Cakes

Dry goods: Whisk together in a big mixing bowl: 2-3/4 cups all-purpose [optional: GF] flour, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and baking soda, 1-2 teaspoons cardamom, and 2 cups sugar (I used about 1 1/2 cups cane sugar plus 1/2 cup coconut sugar, to deepen the flavor).

Mix 2-3 Tablespoons of malted milk powder into a cup of buttermilk. And if there’s really such a thing as “low fat” buttermilk, please tell me how it can parade around under the first name of Butter. Just get the real deal and cinch up your waistband a little if you have to, okay?

Now, in a fresh mixing bowl or your trusty 1-gallon plastic measuring pitcher, mix the wet ingredients: a good slug of quality vanilla extract, and a splash of butter emulsion if you like, the cup of malted buttermilk you mixed earlier, and four large eggs. When those have been well whisked together, pour them into the dry ingredients, along with 2 sticks (1/2 pound) of your best butter, softened—don’t forget that I’m a believer in well-salted sweets, so I use salted butter (sorry, baking purists. But not really sorry). Whisk just until it’s smooth. This makes a thick batter, but not so thick that it’s the least bit difficult to whisk entirely by hand.

Bake the batter in muffin tins or cake tins that have been well greased (coconut oil is nice) and, if you like a little crunch for added pizzazz, dusted with either almond meal or cornmeal, for about 20-25 minutes. Cool for another 15 minutes or so, gently remove the cakes from their pans (unless, as I am, you’re going to take the cake tin right along to your friend’s house), and let it finish cooling before getting all frosty on ’em.Photo: Tutti-frutti Icing

The Icing on this here Cake:

Pop a batch of freeze-dried peach (about 2 oz) and strawberry slices (about 1 oz), along with a cup or so of granulated or icing sugar, a tiny pinch of salt, and a teaspoon of cardamom into your food processor. If you don’t have such a beast in your kitchen, you can crush these little fruity beauties with a rolling pin or bottle, a full tin of beans, a rock, or your hands, depending on your mood and tool availability, but boy howdy, the processor makes quick and thorough work of it! I don’t recommend inhaling deeply as you open the processor or bag you pulverize this mixture in, or you’ll be sneezing fruit for a week, and that can put a damper on your next brunch with the queen. No, I didn’t realize I could buy freeze-dried fruit already powdered. Once the dust has settled sufficiently, however, home crushed works fine; blend this gloriousness into another half pound of butter, along with about a quarter cup of whole-milk plain yogurt. The ingredients of the frosting are all very much to-taste and adjustable in quantity in order to reach the creamy texture and proportions of deep sweetness and fruitiness you prefer. This is best spread or piped at room temperature or slightly cooled onto equally cool cake surfaces.

Whether you choose to refrigerate and serve the finished cakes cold or serve them at room temperature is up to you. Me, I’ll just see if I can wait long enough for either to happen. I went so far as to snip the corner of the plastic zipper bag I’d put the frosting into, making a wildly erratic star tip, but waiting for or fussing over anything fancier is not my strong suit, as you all know.

Photo: The Rest of the Cake

I sprinkled black sesame seeds on the sheet cake before I remembered I had Dutch chocolate sprinkles for my birthday girl’s cupcakes. If my spouse and I want, we can always add sprinkles on top of the sesame seeds, no? The touch of crunch was what mattered, anyhow.

Back to Work—but First, a Pause for Plain Old Happiness

It’s strange, this mysterious netherworld between having produced and published a post a day every single day for 4+ years and now trying to find a footing in the more sporadic presence of blogging only when I have the time! I will figure it out, no doubt. But for now, I’m feeling my way in the dark, it seems.

Okay, I’ve not been utterly inactive elsewhere while not posting consistently. Continuing the detailed work of settling into our new home keeps me doing small projects of all sorts as I figure out precisely how we’ll use the spaces and the things in them, and what might enhance the usefulness or appearance, or better yet, both, of everything here. Life goes on with its usual flurries of school and home office work, hosting various visiting friends at mealtimes, break times, and/or overnight times, and tending to the business of a semi-normal schedule, albeit a surprisingly full one.

And I do find or steal time to play when I can, taking outdoor walks or just wandering up and down the aisles of the grocery store without a plan when I go to stock the pantry and refrigerator, stopping to scrawl a poem or jot a drawing idea. All good. Not to mention that a body’s got to eat, so I do whip up the occasional actual meal, especially if I’m dining with my husband and other friends. Oh, and I’m actively working on my next book or two or ten. And some song lyrics. And finally adding some new stuff to my Zazzle store, which has lain neglected for too long without new merchandise designs. And I’ve been slowly developing yet other, still unnamed and undisclosed, arty projects. I’m not just lying about in my expensive silk-embroidered negligee and eating Belgian chocolate truffles while a harpist plays softly in the corner of my palatial living room.

Though of course that takes approximately 72% of my time, on an average day.

Today, especially, I must take occasional breaks from that normal activity in order to show proper respect for the fact that this date marks the anniversary of my father’s first glorious appearance on this earth. Happy Birthday, Dad! During my commemorative pauses, I am reminded that I have always had before me the example of a very busy, highly productive, and multifaceted guy in my father, one who scarcely took visible breaks himself during his official working years from doing, learning, and attempting a wide variety of amazing feats. So if I have what feels like relatively little time for fiddling around pointlessly or I think I’m a bit overwhelmed by the range of things I’m wanting or needing to accomplish, I am glad to remember that I have grown up in the shade of one who still manages, after years of gaining expertise in the art, to Get Things Done on an impressive level.

And, more importantly in my book, who does so with great good humor and a remarkable ability to find the pleasure and positive aspects in whatever he’s undertaking. Something any of us would do well to learn long before we meet the other sort of undertaker.

Yeah, I’ll get back to my own chores and tasks pretty soon, because I do want to get a thing or two done before my time is up, but there are some more important sorts of items than just what lurks on the to-do lists, like remembering my father on his birthday. Dad, I hope you’re having a superb day, whether it’s spent in high gear Getting Things Done or is a welcome break spent lounging around in your own palatial spot with the aforementioned truffles and sweet serenading as your constant atmospheric enhancements. You are still a fine standard-bearer for the life well lived, and I thank you for it!Photo: Happy Birthday, Dad

Point of Origin

Photomontage: Kid StuffSapient Sources

What Mother said carried no weight—

Dad said the same? Then it was great!

What Dad pronounced we’d all reject—

Then Mother said it? Yay! Correct!

It’s funny, no? But true, of course—

Belief depends more on the source

Than on the facts and evidence—

If only trust were based on sense

In my own heart and in my head

I’d just accept what Mother said—

Except, of course, when in the frame

Of asking if Dad said the same—

Historical Associations

Photo: "The Amazing Feat of 'Sparks'"The small number of vintage family photos I own are a pleasure to view. I’ve admired some of them for their sheer aesthetic value, some for the clues they give to my ancestors; lives, and (indirectly) how the led to mine, and some for both qualities. But I’ve found that, like so many other belongings, the more I see them, the less I notice them. I should know this by now, having lived in around a dozen locations in my life and done the revisionist-revisiting of my personal history that comes with every sort-and-pack adventure. Objects, no matter how I imbue them with meaning and attach to them with affection or nostalgia, are still just objects. I have often enough regretted a hasty or wasteful acquisition, never mind the long-term storage and maintenance of it; I can honestly say that not one de-accessioning has left me seriously sorry. My memory is sufficient.Photo: Mormor & Morfar at Eitland

The family photos that have hung on my walls become—no pun intended—relatively invisible over time. It’s really the stories with which I have come to associate them, true or imagined, that make me revisit them, and this is far more often in my mind’s eye than in physically examining them.Photo: Otteson Family in Norway 1

I haven’t lost interest in my loved ones, unknown relatives, friends, or acquaintances when I stop looking at their pictures any more than I have lost interest in food and drink when I part with a vintage serving bowl or beautiful stemware; it’s just that I have so internalized my affections for them and the personal associations I have with them that those internal images become as real and significant as the things themselves. If I have enough to keep me content and well-filled—bowls, glasses, pictures on the walls—any extras become unnecessary to my pleasure; they go, and the enjoyment remains for as long as I have the memory to revisit it.Photo: Otteson Family in Norway 2

And when the memory goes, I’ll never know it’s missing, will I.Photo: Bolstad Family Grocery, ca. 1912

Sunniest Side Up

Digital illo: Lemon or LemonadeIt’s said that if life hands you lemons, you should make lemonade. That’s a charmingly cheery, sunshiny idea, and one that seems plenty valuable to me, if perhaps occasionally a bit difficult to realize. Even life’s complications can have complications.

That’s why your best bet is to have the finest lemonade-makers handily available to you throughout your life.

I’ve always done well in this department. I was, in fact, born to one of the premier practitioners of both literal and figurative lemonade artistry. Having just chatted with her on this, her birthday, I can confirm that she is still as gifted at it as she is a gift. Mom, whatever the lemon crop at hand, makes the finest sunshiny lemonade out of it. The day may be rainy, as it has been up there today, but I could sense the warmth and light as soon as I heard her voice. It’s a grand thing to feel as though I’ve just sipped that most summery citrus drink when I hear my mother’s voice. It makes me glad that she is having an appropriate day of good cheer and pleasantness for celebrating her birthday. And it makes me glad that I have the blessed privilege of having a mom who retains her skills for day-brightening as the birthdays pass. Who knows but what I might master the recipe for lemonade myself, if I stick by her side and learn from the best.

Happy birthday, Mom! May there be many more, each filled with the most refreshing and renewing joys that, if they’re not already as much a treat as you desire, can be converted with a bit of your special knowledge and skill into the most wonderful lemonade. Cheers!Digital illo: Sunny Sunflower

Speeding Along

Here I am, moving along at speed again. Feels kind of like we’ve all been sucked into the vortex of time and will get spat out who-knows-when and who-knows-where, and in the meantime it’s one heck of a wild ride. But you know, it isn’t boring! I’m just glad I have such good company for the journey among my friends and loved ones. If you do happen to know where I’m headed, please just give me a little nudge in the right direction so my lack of a compass doesn’t get me in too much trouble. Thanks!

Photo: Life Rushes Onward

Life rushes onward. Am I on the bus or in front of it?

Foodie Tuesday: Oh, *Yeah???* Who are YOU Calling a Shrimp?!

Photo: Devil-may-care ShrimpQuite the oxymoron, Jumbo Shrimp. Prawns, perhaps, are better named. Regardless of their size, good, sweet shrimp are no inconsiderable things when it comes to taste. But no matter what I call them—shrimp, prawns, mudbugs, mini-lobsters, or, Shellfish (though, to be sure, they neither have shells in the strict sense nor are they fish) their proper name in my personal lexicon is Delectable. So they appear, disappear, and are invited back to the table time and again chez moi.

My spousal-person, understandably enough, prefers that I keep the decoration of said sea-life to a modest few iterations, rather than going too crazy with innumerable variations on dishes and seasonings he may not fully trust, but he has been known to try a new style or two and adopt them into the canon. For example, I never essayed anything resembling a dish alla Fra Diavolo (Italian food fans will recognize the standard American interpretation of the style as being served with spicy tomato sauce that is indeed devilishly good) until quite recent years, but it’s requested about as often as my also-American interpretation of a good prawn curry. Both of these share top billing around our house with chilled shrimp of whatever size is most freshly available, served with little more than fresh avocado, lemon juice, and salt. Maybe a couple of olives on the side, or the lemon juice amped up with a zip of salsa. No need for much bling; the shrimp’s the thing.Photo: Devilish Tasty, Those

Of course, you do know that I am a meddler. I will fiddle and foozle endlessly with any ingredient that so captures my fancy, and so it is with shrimp and all of their crustacean kin when I’m not in the mood for The Usual. At least many of the best ways of serving shellfish and their ilk are ripe for the tweaking, so I needn’t go so far afield in my experiments that my esteemed fella can’t happily dig into a relatively unsullied meal of whatever form he prefers, so I can roam a little, gastronomically, without losing sight of the guy across the table from me. Shrimp are good that way. Shrimp fried rice, for example, can be sweet, sour, spicy, or salty; Japanese-inflected or Thai-influenced, Chinese-inspired or Polynesian in character, and one way or another, we can doctor the dish at table to suit our individual tastes just fine.Photo: Peas Don't Take My Shrimp Fried Rice

And, since we live in a region that’s rarely cool enough for our comfort during about ten months of the year, shrimp salads are a good, refreshing change of pace from time to time as well. A lovely green salad topped with shrimp is marvelous whether it’s complemented with taco salad ingredients, fried in coconut coating to sit atop a jazzy heap of shredded Napa cabbage and citrus mélange and sprinkled with black sesame seed, or as the star protein in a Cobb salad, deconstructed into neat little arrangements of the classic Cobb ingredients or just piled hither and thither—no matter what the urge, shrimp are a fair bet to fulfill it. So says my pantry (via the best tinned tinies I can find), my fridge (when the season is right) and my freezer (as often as I can lay hands on those swell swimmers that were pulled straight from the ocean into the deep freeze).

And so says my stomach. Amen.Photo: Cobbled-together Cobb