Foodie Tuesday: The Gingerbread Woman

The scent of cinnamon drifting out as I open the door invites me to plunge inside, but I can’t help taking my time. A deep, slow breath: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice. Ginger. A smack of icy air throws my collar up around my ears and gives me the final push to dash inside, the storm door slamming behind me.

Gingerbread.Photo: Gingerbread 1

Mama loves us. The school board thinks it better we all traipse home, damp and frost-speckled, through the sidewalk maze of shoveled snow than that we stay snugly tucked into the school with a sack lunch, and we kids complain at the bitter wind and the icy ground. Slipping sidelong into the snowdrifts isn’t as fun when we still have the slog back to afternoon class ahead, wet and miserable, blue around the nose and chin or not.

But some lucky few of us have the respite of bath-towel-wielding mothers, a pair of dry socks hanging over the back of the chair, and on top of it all, a homemade lunch waiting for us at home. Lunch with gingerbread. Sweet, so hot from the oven that clouds of spice envelop us at the threshold. So hot that even after we’ve gobbled our sandwiches and soup to get to it, the layer of homemade applesauce on top can’t keep the uppermost layer of whipped cream from melting faster than those last snowflakes in our hair.

Gingerbread. Mother’s love and blessed relief from the cold winter’s day all wrapped up in a helping of almost unbearably delicious goodness. Sigh. Back to school. Repeat. Maybe there will be enough gingerbread left over for after supper, if we hurry home fast enough.Photo: The Gingerbread WomanMy Own Gingerbread with Rum Caramel

Preheat oven to 350°F/177°C.  Blend dry ingredients gently with a whisk: 2 cups [gluten-free, in my case] flour, 1 cup packed brown sugar, 1 cup granulated sugar, a scant 1 1/5 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp baking soda, spice mix [2 T ginger, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp each cloves, nutmeg, and white pepper, + 1 hefty pinch each cardamom and salt]. In a saucepan, melt 3/4 cup coconut oil and add to it 1 cup molasses, 1/2 cup whole milk yogurt, and 1/2 cup dark rum (cane sugar cola, root beer, or ginger ale is a great non-alcoholic alternative), warming just until thoroughly blended. Add 3 large eggs and beat them in well, tempering the wet ingredients if the warmed ones are still at all hot so the eggs won’t curdle. Combine the wet and dry ingredients and pour into a heavily greased and floured (I used cocoa powder mixed with cinnamon, to keep from building up any unseemly white dust blooming on the finished goods) cake or loaf pan, cupcake tins, or a combination of these, allowing plenty of space for a bit of rising as the batter bakes.

For small portions like the cupcakes, start with no more than 18-20 minutes’ baking; larger batches like a Bundt pan can be checked later, allowing up to nearly an hour for full baking. Check occasionally, removing them from the oven when they seem nearly done; a very little under-baking keeps them nicely sticky and gooey, good cousins to the Britons’ glorious Sticky Toffee Pudding.

While I’m on the subject of toffee, there’s nothing at all wrong with the idea of a caramel kind of topping to accompany a nice, intensely spicy gingerbread like this. So I made some Rum Caramel Sauce: in a nonstick saucepan, I cooked together, until melted, 1 cup brown sugar (again!), 1/2 cup browned butter (I’d just made up a nice big batch of my beloved beurre noisette), 1/4 cup dark rum (see above note for non-alcoholic versions), plus a touch or two of cream to thin it as desired at the last. Terrible stuff; you wouldn’t like it at all. May I have your serving of it?

Lastly, of course, if one is feeling particularly indulgent-and-when-am-I-not, it’s good to top all of this with a heaping spoonful of cream whipped up with lots of vanilla and dark maple syrup. The resulting calorie-free, eternal-life-conferring dessert met with approval at snack time, after dinner, in the late evening, and for breakfast. So you can expect that my friends and I will be outliving all of you. Or at least, dying contented. I didn’t get any no-thank-yous when I offered thirds, anyway. As I’m sure my mama never did, back in the old days of snowy trudges and school lunches.

The Darker Side of Kid Scientists

Photo + text: Too Bad for the Bug

I know it’s generally preferred that scientists take a detached and dispassionate approach to their subjects so as not to skew their studies or experimental data, but I rather think that even entomologists should show a little respect for their subjects. But kids will be kids. Also, I happen to know from my own youth that if you let on that you find something creepy or gross, it’s pretty much guaranteed that some other child will eventually figure out how to use it to torture you. Kids are charming that way.

Grandchildren (and Others) on the Loose

Digitally painted photo: Granny at PlayAt Granny’s House

That impish twinkle in her eyes

might lead you to hypothesize

that Granny’s up to something good,

and you’d be right, oh, yes you would—

There’s something in the oven now,

sweeter than Mama’s rules allow,

and some wild playtime to be had

surpassing anything that Dad

prefers, as well, and there’s a tree

you’ll climb, you and your sisters three—

Before your parents spoil the romp,

she’ll make her funny false teeth chomp,

make goofy faces, mad as yours,

all five will then get on all fours

and roll around the living room—

Eight-thirty! chimes the clock, and boom!—

Just as their car pulls up the drive,

you all head for the couch and dive

into a tidy line, as calm

and placid as a Dad and Mom

could hope to see, and Granny’s eyes are

twinkling. Parents?

None the wiser.Digitally painted photo: Playtime

The Strangest Kind of Strangers on a Train

The old tale of complete strangers meeting in transit, discovering they have identical problems, and “solving” the problems by trading crimes to eliminate the people they see as the root of their unhappiness, makes for a striking mystery drama, in fiction. Ask Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock fans! But I was reminded recently that we give too little credit to our commonalities as a positive solution to our problems, and end up missing crucial opportunities as a result.

The filmic version takes as its thesis that the two strangers who meet can find not other, or at least no better, solution to the problem of having bad relationships with inconveniently incompatible people than to murder them, and by ‘exchanging’ murders with each other they hope to escape detection by each having no apparent connection to, or a motive for killing, the other’s nemesis.

While this makes for startling and even compelling imagined mystery, it’s horrific if imagined in real terms. Yet we do similar things all the time in this world, don’t we? Because I tend to agree with a particular point of view in general, say, a specific philosophy or political party’s policies, or my country’s traditions, does that mean it’s wise or humane or practical or generous to follow along without question, no matter what my group, party or nation says and does? We mortals are remarkably good at noticing and magnifying our differences, as genuine and large as they may be. But we’re frighteningly weak, in opposing measure, when it comes to recognizing, focusing on, and building upon our true kinship. This, I believe, easily outweighs in both quantity and importance, our separating characteristics. Digital illustration from a photo: Opening Doors

The recent train outing in Sweden that reminded me so pointedly of this also confirmed my belief that it’s an area where youth is wiser than experience. In a railcar where a young father, not a local or a native speaker of the language, was keeping his fifteen-month-old daughter occupied and contented during the trip by helping her practice her tipsy walking, she made her way with his help to where another family, also foreign but not of the same culture as father and daughter, was sitting together. That group was of two adult sisters and their four or five school-age children. The toddler was naturally attracted to the friendly and spirited older children, and as soon as they saw her, they too were enchanted. What followed was perhaps twenty minutes of delighted interaction between them all, with occasional balance aid from Papa and photo-taking by the Mamas. And barely a word was spoken, much less understood by any of the participants, during the entire episode.

The greatest among the many beauties of this endearing one-act was that the conversation essentially began, continued and ended with the kids reaching toward one another with open hands, waving and gesturing and generally putting on an elaborate pantomime together, and above all, giggling and chortling with peals and squeals of ecstatic laughter.

Needless to say, all of us adults in the railcar grinned, giggled, chortled and otherwise became happy kids right along with them. Resistance was an impossibility and a pointless attempt, at that. And isn’t that an excellent lesson for all? Adults are too busy being territorial and fearful and downright feral to remember that the open hand of welcome and sharing is as quickly reciprocated as any gesture, and a smile of greeting and acceptance is contagious beyond any language, age, or cultural barriers. We can nurse our terrors of the unknown as supposed adults, or we can choose to laugh together like children.Digital illustration from a photo: As If in a Mirror

No Surprises Here

Digital Illustration from a Photo: Baby Carriage

Kids have an amazingly flexible sense of time. The week at the lake, playing with cousins, is so shockingly short that the suggestion of leaving there provokes crying fits of desperate sorrow over its unbearable brevity. The twenty-minute regular doctor’s appointment, with a quick squeeze from the blood pressure cuff and a thermometer swiftly passed across a healthy forehead, well that might as well have taken ten years, because the same child is now certain she’ll die in a matter of seconds from the prolonged trauma of it all.

But to be fair, isn’t this exactly the way we see time as supposed adults, too? I may not want anyone to catch me whimpering over the end of a holiday or the beginning of a doctor visit, but generally, I’m not less inclined to feel that way than I ever was in youth. The real difference, for adults, is that we have the perspective and experience to recognize the true brevity of our lives within the broad arc of time. We have, if anything, a deeper desire to cling to and attenuate all of the good moments and avoid the bad. It’s not childishness for a kid to abhor pain and sorrow and crave ease and pleasures, it’s an innate wisdom that tells us the clock is ticking.

I won’t tell you to stop wasting your precious time reading my blog posts, no, I am far from that angelic and selfless. But I hope that time thus spent is indeed a refreshment and pleasure, however small. And that, in the larger scheme, it serves to remind both you and me, if gently, to value our limited time of life enough to choose those things that reduce the ills of life and expand upon the joys—for self, for others—forever. Or as close to it as we can manage to stretch.Digital Illustration from a Photo: Carousel and Other Horses

Haunted Youth

digital illustration from a photoThat House on Our Street

The doorway was a toothy maw, the casement was an eye,

and all the children crept in awe each time they must pass by,

regardless what they heard or saw; they knew that they would die

if anything at all should draw them in, no matter why,

For bogeys, fiends and ghastly ghouls inhabited the place,

entrapping and devouring fools, and set on them apace;

those children who had left their schools and homes without a trace

now lay decaying in deep pools as dark as outer space,

Dug in the basement deep below, a catacomb of holes

filled up with youth who’d tried to go into this cage of souls

and found, not fun adventures, no, but rather, evil moles

of spirit-kind hid here–and so, for them the town bell tolls;

Lost children wail twixt yonder walls at night while moonlight creeps,

and roam like mists down endless halls while all around them sleeps;

no knowing parent ever calls again; the mansion keeps

its secrets tight, and silence falls, far as the deepest deeps;

At least, the children’s fears said so; the legend kept in thrall

the children thereabouts, who’d go timidly past it all

at anxious speed along the row, lest they lose their recall

to safety. As grownups all know: life’s scary when you’re small!

Small Wonder

digital illustration from a photoRegeneration

Small children are such pretty little things,

Their chattering and skipping on the green

Playground of summer like the beating wings

And songs of flocks of birds are heard and seen;

It’s fortunate such playful charms are theirs,

That doll-like innocence and holding fast

To unspoiled beauty’s natural to our heirs–

Or this bunch living now would be the last.

That which is Seen

graphite drawingThat which is seen by the untrained eye of the casual observer is an older man, an elderly man, perhaps a shell of his former self. Not someone with a lot of use and life adventure left in him. Handsome, perhaps, in his latter years, with this silver hair and these pale clear eyes, with his faintly stooping posture before a window where no single thing that’s new is seen; elegant in his quiet way, and maybe wise. But not more.

What cannot be seen is the forty-two years he spent working for the postal service, learning the business from the bottom up and eventually teaching not just the next generation that would follow him but the next after that as well. There is no way to know at merely a glance that he tended a beautiful garden on Sunday afternoons where he grew too many vegetables for his own table so he shared the rest around the neighborhood. Invisible, too, is the love he keeps alive for his long-dead wife of thirty years, except for the small bouquet of flowers he picks from that garden of his and gives to their son and his wife every Monday because they were her favorite blooms. Yes, the flowers and the kids.

In the plain little vase where those flowers live for the week, there is room for all that can’t be seen in one quick look at the profile of a man who sits and meditates beside a window. Only by taking the time to appreciate the fulness of that humble bunch of flowers and all that they have to tell can anyone really know what to see when looking toward that window’s light. It takes a certain clarity to see what’s right in front of you.graphite drawing

Tough Neighborhood

Watch Out for those Kids

We were playing at boules and pétanque

In a park not so far from the Seine

But the children we played were so bloodthirsty there

That we vowed not to play them againdigital collage

You’re Not Afraid? You *will be*!

digital collage

The Jitters

Remember the years when we were young

And captive among our babysitters?

Sheer terror would reign with its horrid thrill,

The unspeakable chill we would call the Jitters.

Under the bed or under the house,

A mouse isn’t safe when the Jitters gleam

Reptilian fangs and rhinoceros horns;

O! The scorns we would risk to release a scream!

Anything dark and anywhere doored

Could harbor a horde of Jittery creeps;

They hide under blankets and lurk behind stones:

The wrack in the bones that never sleeps.

Do I hear the wind? Did you hear an owl?

Or was it the howl of the restless dead?

The moan of a sailor just as he drowned?

All around are the sounds of the things we dread.

That flickering light! The curtains a-moving,

And both of them proving that something is near:

We’d writhe in our agonies, plagued by deceptions

And all the perceptions of what we fear.

This, you remember, was life with the Unknown,

And all of the fun known as children was moot

Whenever night fell or a stranger came calling;

Appalling how it never stopped its pursuit.

Now deep in adulthood, responsible, sane,

We scoff at the pain of those gibbers and twitters,

Yet get us alone, in a vulnerable state,

And sooner or late, we succumb to the Jitters.digital collage + text

Endless Falling

A whisper in the gloaming just pre-dawn
A shiver or a prickling on the neck
A flutter of the eyelid, quick, then gone
And hope of any sleep is now a wreck

Above me in the dark are broken dreams
Above my brow an icicle of fear
Above the awful emptiness, the screams
In silent agony are all I hear

And under all this brittle disarray
And under skin and in the bone and soul
And under some enchantment, night and day
I know this wickedness will eat me whole

Against the dangers present in this fright
Against the door of Death I’ll knock tonight