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.

Next Thing I Know…

I have never lived for any great length of time without wondering what would happen the next year, the next day, or the next hour in my life. It’s a deeply inherent part of my existence, and I suspect, of most other people’s as well. But I’m experienced and grown-up enough by now to recognize that I should jolly well limit my mulling over that mystery enough to spend the majority of my energies on getting the most out of the present—and putting the most that I can into it.

Call it whatever you please, devotion to making myself better in the here and now seems to me far more useful, meaningful, and simply enjoyable than mooning and swooning over what might be, may be, could be, or should be. I try, and I hope to try better. I mean to try better.

But really—what is coming? I can’t quite let that alone, either. Too tantalizing….

Meanwhile, in the here and now, I am tremendously grateful for many wonderful things. I am rich with love and friendship, with food and shelter and opportunity. And I have one of the greatest treasures of all, the knowledge and experience of peace. It may be a slightly rare commodity in the unknown, unplanned chaos of everyday life, never mind in the wider world’s daily struggles. But I have known peace and am gifted with times of deep and comforting peace through those riches I have just enumerated for you. And through no deserts of mine—I am glad beyond imagining that whatever lies ahead, I expect to keep looking for, and finding, Peace.

Happy Thanksgiving, and I wish all of you the opportunities to experience peace, and to share it with all of those whose life paths your own intersects. Peace among us all.Photo: Thankful for Peace

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

Shades of Myself

How Fleeting is My Soul

O, perfidy! that, fugitive, elopes
With all that filled my soul with meanings rare,
And character, and hung up in the air
What history I knew, and all my hopes,
My senses, and my sense, unleashed them all;
Left me unmoored, untethered, in the wind,
Subject to every buffeting, unpinned;
And burning like an effigy, to fall
In ashen flakes and caught in drafts, to drift
Apart from faithless memory, and pine
For everything I thought was Me and Mine,
Now tantalizing from across a rift.
What once defined and marked me as my own
Has fled, and Self has left me quite alone.Digital illo: Egret

Here’s hoping that there are cures, or at least tremendous strides in treatments for, Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia in the near future. And even before then, greatly improved support for those who suffer from these sorrows, whether as patients or as patients’ caregivers.

Remember This

Photo: Forgotten ThingsIf you are getting more forgetful with the years, all is not lost. It’s more about remembering the central, crucial, meaningful things than about being able to rattle off all of your codes and passwords, your second cousins’ birthdays, or the conversion tables for metric-to-imperial measurements. It doesn’t matter terribly if you can recall whether you closed the back gate when you came in, since you’ll eventually go out again. Recollections of your intent to mark a play you want to attend on your calendar because it’ll be in town in six weeks or of what you meant to buy when you got to the grocers’ might be important, but only for a short while, and only in the smaller scheme of things.

It’s much more important to remember the peculiarly exciting, if murky, odors of a busy train station where you waited to take your first solo journey of more than ten city blocks, at the tender age of thirteen or so. More useful to recall the sound your heart made in your ears when that feral and atavistic fear and longing of new love brought its strangely sweet and terrifying joy into your central nervous system for the very first time. It’s far and away more significant to remember that you ever had a single human, known to you or an utter stranger, who looked you straight in the eye and said a kind word, or who listened to you speak because it genuinely mattered what you said, regardless of how small the topic.

It’s most important of all to remember that your presence on this planet shifts the very molecules of time, space, and reality for every other living entity, and did so from the instant of your conception and will do so forever and ever after you, simply because you came into existence. You are matter, and you do matter. What positive effects you can have by merely being present here might seem infinitesimally minute to you. But for one other being, someone you didn’t even realize could be so affected, you might be that person who looked her straight in the eye and said a kind word, the object of electrifying first love, or the indirect yet needful reason a youth boards a train, solo, for the first and most memorable journey of his life.Photo: A Life's Journey

I Wish…

If you spend any time here, you already know how I fear any political, religious, social, or philosophical position that claims to have all of the concrete answers about who we are, what our purpose is for existing in the first place, and how we are supposed (or not) to accomplish it all. I, limited in my capacity as I will readily admit to being, cannot fathom how there would be any point to having invented creatures with brains and character like ours let alone the will and sense of individual privilege and/or responsibility that we humanoids have, if the astonishing Force that invented us didn’t expect us to actually use all of those incredibly complex and admittedly imperfect attributes to find our way forward from birth to death, from initiation to completion. That we are here as a hugely diverse populace rather than as one or two measly individuals says to me that it takes a whole colorful, widely differentiated, bunch of us to have any hope of getting the job done. Whatever the job really is.

I long for the day when the wider world will get tired of telling each other how a “normal” person must look, feel, and think, or what is “natural” and acceptable in one’s sense and definition of self. These judgements are based on generalizations that fit remarkably few with exactitude; the Sun King‘s male courtiers and any number of Victorian era boys grew up wearing frilly little white gowns very like their sisters’ and were no less, or more, likely to be LGBTIQ as a result; high heels and cosmetics and elaborate jewelry and clothing haven’t been exclusively feminine accoutrements from very early recorded history onward, any more than it was ever true that only men could build houses or repair cars, or farm, hunt, and fish. No gender or sexual orientation predetermines what one loves or is good at doing or automatically consigns the person to any magically specific role in the universe, any more than there is any clear rubric in any of the literature, scientific or religious, that I’ve read or heard discussed that proves to me with any conviction that our bodies are and must remain our destinies.

While not a scholar or living exemplar of Christianity by any measure, I did grow up in a mainline Christian household and do a reasonable amount of reading and study over the years, enough to convince me that anyone claiming to be a Christian but promoting the idea that any race, sex, age, intellect, or social status confers special Goodness and sanctity (or the reverse) upon anybody has conveniently forgotten that, according to what Biblical and historical records anyone has, Christ was not white, clean-shaven, conformist, English-speaking, well-behaved (according to the standards of his day and community), immune to anger and other human failings, or unwilling to consider the value, even the occasional urgency, of change in the longtime beliefs of his compatriots. I certainly didn’t see any injunction of his to Go Forth and Hate Others.

While not willingly a declared member of any political party—I suspect lots of politics have little or nothing to do with the good of the ruled masses—I consider myself a very tiny step left of center. Yet I don’t doubt for a second that anybody who assessed my lifetime’s voting, let alone the details of my actual personal views, would gladly challenge my self-definition, thinking themselves obviously more liberal, more conservative, more centrist, or more what-have-you, than I am. I don’t find much use in any of the labels so often applied for political recognition these days, any more than I do religious ones, social or cultural or intellectual ones. We are who we are, and I can only imagine we’d do best if we simply acknowledge it, try to keep learning, and move forward.

What a lot of pointless, counterproductive hangups and sorrows we design for ourselves. I think, wish, and hope we can, could, and should instead be experiencing the true Normal and Natural of differing and disagreeing without hatred, uniqueness without fear, and love and compassion without boundaries. Including the bounds of my own shortcomings.

Digital illo: Psycho-delic

Somewhere, rainbow or no rainbow…we might find a meeting point in a better place in human history. We’re wonderfully, wildly different. But different can be a great thing, if you ask me.