I’m trying to appreciate late winter and all that goes with it in Vermont. In the last week, we’ve had 32 inches of snow (in one storm), four days of rain, and this morning I woke to 42 degrees, sunny, and snowing all at the same time. I’m not sure how this last weather event is possible, but nonetheless, I’m here to certify that it happened. This is the time of the year when cabin fever starts to make us all a little crazy. So I’m here to tell you why it’s possible to love this time of year. And then I’ll tell you about the cake that makes it feel a little more like spring.
In deep winter, very little light makes it into our house. The morning light that floods our kitchen in the spring, summer and fall angles low in the sky in deep winter, gracing us with only a few minutes of light each morning. However, this is the time of year when it starts to linger across our kitchen table. Breakfast is often bathed in sunlight, a welcome balm as the wood stove slowly brings warmth back to the house after being banked for the night. Our living room gets the light later into t he evening as well- something no one takes advantage of better than our kitty.
The winter here can be so quiet, especially after a snow. Sound is muffled when everything is enclosed in ice. But when we get our first rains, if it rains hard enough, the creeks and streams start to run fast. This sounds like a distant roar, background to all the drama of this season. The dripping of snow off the wood pile, the melting of icicles on the roof , and the sound of rain drumming on the deck are all liquid reminders that all this snow will shortly be replaced by bulbs and new spinach coming up in the garden.
One of the things I always appreciate after the deepest winter has passed is how the earth softens. A walk up my dirt road in deep winter is like walking on pavement- hard, unyielding, rigid. But in late winter, after those first rains, it all softens a bit. There’s a spring to the earth that I’d never notice in the summer when there’s so much else to appreciate. But after the brittle cold and ice of winter, that little give to the surface of the road feels like spring. This comes shortly before spring mud. Vermonters love to talk about mud season and how hard it can be. But I don’t mind this at all because it is the start of everything coming back to life.
Despite all this, true spring is still a long way off. Spinach and asparagus and strawberries are months away and we’ll get many more inches of snow before winter finally bows out. So we’re doing what we can food-wise to plow through the wild-eyed cabin fever. This lemon cake helped quite a bit. It’s featured in Nigel Slater’s website under spring recipes– maybe he has some cabin fever, too? Regardless, the lemon flavor is intense and zingy both in the cake as well as in the frosting. It’s a great way to wake up those taste buds after winter stews and roots.
Lemon Polenta Cake
Adapted from Nigel Slater. Instructions were less detailed than I’d like in Nigel’s version of this recipe- fine for cooking which I’m more comfortable with, but not so much for baking. He suggests a 20cm (7.9 inch) cake pan but I only have a 9″. This makes the difference between being able to cut this cake into two layers and not. I’d suggest doubling the recipe and using two separate layers if you likewise have a 9″ cake pan. Regardless, this is my adaptation.
I did not translate this into cups from Nigel’s grams, mostly because Gluten Free Girl’s recent post has convinced me that baking by weight is vastly superior to baking by volume. However, I did not measure at all when I mixed up the frosting, so I estimated the ratio I used in cups. Inconsistent? Yes. It’s taking my brain a while to adapt!
For the cake:
- 3 large eggs, separated
- 110g. white sugar
- 1 lemon, juice and zest
- 50g. cornmeal
- 30g. almond meal (or almonds, finely ground in a food processor)
For the frosting:
- 3/4c. lemon curd (I used this recipe but you could use store-bought if you like)
- 3/4c. heavy whipping cream
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Butter and flour a 9″ cake pan (I usually use sweet rice flour for this). Separate eggs. Whisk yolks with sugar in a standing mixer on high speed until they’re thick and pale yellow in color. Grate the lemon zest with a microplane grater and squeeze the juice. Add the juice to the egg yolks and sugar, a little bit at a time, and beat on medium high speed for two or three minutes. Add zest, cornmeal, and almond meal and stir with a rubber spatula to combine.
In a separate clean bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff. Then gently fold egg whites into the cake batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake for about 25 minutes. The top will brown a bit and a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean when done. Let cool for five minutes or so and then turn out onto a cake rack to cool completely.
Beat the whipping cream in a clean bowl until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the lemon curd into the cream, adding more or less lemon curd depending on how lemony you’d like your frosting. If you have two cake layers, spread half the frosting on the first layer and gently place the second layer on top. Spread the remaining frosting on the top and ease it around the sides. (Mine was obviously just one layer and generously iced!) I had mine with Earl Grey tea and it was a perfect mid-morning snack.
I often wake up early- 4 or 5am- with hunger echoing in my belly. I ignore this and go back to sleep but when I do eventually get out of bed, I’m ready to eat. Immediately. I cannot relate to people who don’t eat breakfast. If I neglect to eat in the morning, I am cranky and irritable by 9am.
I’m also very specific about what I want to eat for breakfast. It is the same thing nearly every day and on those days when I have something different, I’m always a little regretful. The perfect breakfast as I see it is a cup of milky black tea and two slices of bread, toasted until slightly crisp at the edges, smeared with almond butter and raspberry jam. I thought about taking a picture of my breakfast this morning, but I was a little embarrassed at just how much almond butter and raspberry jam was slathered on there. So I just shot the tea.
I’m getting picky about the tea also. When I was home for Christmas, my mother gave me a huge bag of Harney and Sons organic Assam loose leaf tea. I’m still working my way through this bag, one morning at a time. In a pinch, I’ll drink any kind of black tea, especially over coffee, but this is the one that I look forward to when I wake up at 4am.
I can’t remember if I’ve always been so in love with breakfast, or if this is a recent, pregnancy-induced phenomenon, but as I’m eating breakfast, I’m already sad that it will soon be over. I’m willing to consider that this behavior might be a little obsessive.
In the unhappy event that I can’t have this for breakfast, my mother-in-law’s granola is a close second. I had this in Florida last week, and she’d been storing it in the freezer. This frozen granola with cold milk and sliced strawberries actually made me reconsider for a few moments my devotion to toast and tea. And now that you know how strong that devotion is to toast and tea, perhaps you’d like to try the granola? You won’t be sorry.
One of the brittle tricks of winter is that the coldest days are often the clearest and most beautiful. After weeks of gray skies and snow accumulation every day, last weekend dawned bright and cold. Over the following three days, the thermometer bottomed out at night near-22°F, and during the day it never rose above 8° or 9°F.
The inside of our windows were rimmed with ice, the snow underfoot squeaked and squelched when we hurried outside to get the mail. I put my walks up the road on hold and it was only when we absolutely had to get more firewood from the pile that we ventured out for any length of time. And it would have been bearable except that the wind started to blow- the kind of breeze that in summer would cool sweaty arms and feel refreshing and lovely. In this coldest of temperatures though, it was incentive to move quickly, arms swinging to keep circulation going in our fingers.
I am appreciating that firewood during the days now that I unexpectedly find myself no longer working. What has the potential to be a scary time, unexpectedly feels less stressful than the job I left behind. I’ve more time these days for reflection, and for taking photographs. And so I am planning to re-invigorate this space. To pick up the pen, er keyboard, again for a while. I hope you’ll indulge me.
Everyone is cranky at work. We’re cranky at home. People are driving more aggressively. I find myself saying things that don’t make sense. It’s the heat, folks, and it doesn’t seem to be putting us all on our best behavior. We had a solid week of record-breaking temperatures and since then, it hasn’t let up much. The north is wilting.
Living as we have been in this land of short tempers, I’ve been thinking lately about a friend of mine who impressed me years ago with his attitude towards something that was making me crazy. I was hot, I was irritated, and things weren’t going well. Finally, in frustration, I asked Ben for help. The man came over, glad to help, whistling. Perhaps I don’t need to tell you that the problem I was trying to solve was pretty quickly taken care of. I suspect it was the whistling.
So, in this spirit, I’m trying to walk through these sweltering days, well, if not whistling at least doing my best to choose to lighten up a bit. I’ve been appreciating the garden’s lushness in the heat. Everything is suddenly immense. Garlic is fat and nearly ready to pull, tomatoes are growing so fast I swear you can almost see it, and the summer squash and zucchini are suddenly overwhelming. And so, I’m working my way through a pile of squash recipes and looking forward to the first ripe tomatoes from my garden, and I’m whistling in the heat.
Cool zucchini and avocado soup
This was inspired by a recipe on Aapplemint’s blog and adapted for the avalanche of squash that I’ve got right now. It’s a pretty green and something I’ll definitely be making again.
4 med. zucchini or summer squash
1 large onion
1 med. cucumber
chicken stock, to taste
3 T. sour cream or plain yogurt
handful of basil leaves, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Coarsely chop squash and onion. Film a skillet with oil and saute onions until translucent. Add squash, salt to taste, and saute until soft. Let cool to room temperature. Meanwhile, peel and coarsely chop the cucumber and pulse in a food processor. Peel and pit the avocado and scoop out the flesh with a spoon into the food processor. Pulse with cucumber. Add cooled squash mixture and pulse until smooth, thinning with chicken stock as needed. Add basil and sour cream or yogurt and pulse until combined. Serve cool or cold, garnished with diced cucumber or chopped green zebra tomatoes if you can find them.
Well, goodness, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Time seems to be passing so fast lately. Nearly the summer solstice, it’s muggy and warm. There’s a steady breeze and thunder storms on the horizon for this evening. In a fit of – what? – heat stroke, summer craziness, something… I picked eight quarts of strawberries today from a local pick your own farm. It was hot, it made my back ache, and it felt very much like summer. It felt good.
Our garden is supposed to have strawberries in it. A week ago, I was eying the blushing berries, gauging that we needed one more day of ripening before picking. We were going to have friends over the next day for dinner and I was anticipating picking those berries and serving them sans any gussying-up for desert.
I got home with only a half hour to prep and headed out with a huge plastic container to fill. (You know what’s coming, right?) There wasn’t a damn berry left on those plants. As I threw a mini tantrum in the midst of our strawberry patch, swearing at the wee beasts that thought they were entitled to my strawberries, I noticed my husband looking at me with a wary eye. Sigh. Over-reacting? Probably. It was a lot of strawberries though.
And so, my weekend yielded this spontaneous strawberry picking episode and a now a fridge packed with berries. I ate them for lunch with plain, whole milk yogurt and some maple syrup. I ate them plain while I waited for the grill to heat up for dinner. And while dinner was on the grill, I sliced strawberries for homemade strawberry ice cream. And this treat is always what makes it really feel like summer to me. This means annual visits from nieces and nephews and the first heat waves of the summer. And I’ll be honest, it’s really the only time of the year I pull that heretofore much-coveted ice cream maker out of the basement.
And then, just because there are so damn many berries in my fridge, I also made strawberry shortcake. With gluten-free biscuits, cobbled together from a couple different recipes, mostly Gluten Free Girl’s. The first batch was kind of weird. Note to self: sweet potato flour makes things taste like sweet potatoes. Perhaps that would have been obvious to someone concerned less with using up all those berries and more concerned with what was in front of her. They were tasty, but not exactly what you’d top with strawberries and cream. And so I tried again. This time, I used less assertive flours, and the results were much better.
I’ll also point out, in her defense, the Gluten Free Girl’s recipe did not include sweet potato flour. This was my own innovation. Ahem. Baking? Well, clearly my talents lie elsewhere. And in my defense, I never claimed otherwise. However, all that aside, please do try the biscuits below. They really were lovely. Though I still have strawberries left over.
Gluten Free Strawberry Shortcake
1/2 c. sorghum flour
1/2 c. light buckwheat flour
1/2 c. gluten-free oat flour
1/2 c. sweet brown rice flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. xanthan gum
1 t. coarse salt
4 T. cold butter, cut into pieces
3/4 c. buttermilk (or milk soured with 1 t. cider vinegar)
1 egg white
Preheat oven to 450° F. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl and whisk with a fork until thoroughly combined. Add butter pieces and smoosh it around with two forks into the flours until it has the texture of little peas.
Beat the egg white until frothy and add to dry ingredients. Add buttermilk to dry ingredients. Fold both into dry ingredients until it just comes together. Drop onto parchment-lined baking sheet in 2.5-3″ diameter rounds.
Bake for approximately 20 minutes.
Makes a baker’s dozen.
1 pint strawberries, sliced
1/4 c. sugar
squeeze of lemon juice
Mix all ingredients together in bowl and allow strawberries to macerate for a half hour.
Slice each biscuit in half and place several large spoons full of strawberries onto bottom half. Place second half over strawberries and then top with whipped cream (or strawberry ice cream, should you have it). I didn’t use all of the biscuits. If you’re making all 13 of them, you’ll need more strawberries. Biscuits keep several days in an air-tight container.
There’s something to be said for leaving a heavy wet snow in late spring, heading to the land of endless spring, and then coming back to summer at home. This spring has been something of a tease, warm and lovely early on so that everything bloomed early. Then we had eighteen inches of snow, on top of blooming tulips, daffodils, green leaves. The green of the leaves through the snow made it all look a little eerie, like the sky before a tornado. Then as soon as lilacs bloomed, three more inches of snow. Thankfully, I was in Portland, Oregon by then.
And hello, Portland. What a lovely city you are. I think I’m a little bit smitten. Your sweet neighborhoods, with deep, shady porches, blooms that are twice the size of ours, and tons of people riding bicycles. The acres of pubic parks, the Japanese garden… and people, the farmers’ market. I cannot even tell you how much I love the Portland farmers market. While our market is still dealing in radishes and greens, Portland has bounty that is unheard of in our land of brittle winters and fickle springs.
The mushrooms were enough to make a girl weep. We bought morels, shiitake, porcinis. We bought asparagus, prunes, hazelnuts, hard cider, and oysters. Yes, this market, only an hour and a half from the Pacific, had oysters. I was smitten. But perhaps I mentioned that?
We drank wine, we ate gluten-free goodies at New Cascadia Traditional (gluten free people, please visit this place), and we wandered through the Columbia River gorge. Honestly, I’m in love with this place.
After that farmers’ market trip, we took our bounty back to the friends’ house where we were staying and made them a Portland feast. The oysters, we had on the half shell with a squeeze of lemon. We followed this by quinoa and a saute of our three kinds of mushrooms, asparagus, and leeks. And this, of course, was accompanied by good friends, good conversation, and a lovely wine from Argyle vineyard. Sigh. I won’t even go into my love for the Oregon coast. It’s too sappy to keep you reading.
And so coming back might have been hard if it hadn’t been for summer announcing itself with blazing skies and such a verdant, abundant landscape. The snow has melted into memory and summer has landed. And I, for one, am grateful.
Well now. It’s been some time since I stopped here last. I’ve been missing it. While I’ve been away, spring has really come to Vermont with all it’s false starts and teasing warmth and shivery promises. I’ve been trying to appreciate every minute I can. And each new bloom in the garden brings us one step closer to bare shoulders, summer evenings on the deck, veggies fresh from the garden, and the ease that warmth and light brings with it. I had a moment a week or so ago, standing on the deck as dark fell, thinking Oh, we used to sit out here, enjoying the night air and the view. Winter is long here.
We have a project going on in our kitchen that has kept us busy. I’ll tell you all about it soon, complete with pictures, but for now, suffice it to say that we haven’t been cooking much. We are in that in-between season where winter stews and root vegetables are losing their appeal, but spring greens and asparagus and mushrooms are still a few weeks away. And so meals have become a bit erratic… one evening pretending that it is warm enough to comfortably enjoy grilling burgers on the deck and the next simmering a big pot of beans and dousing them with olive oil and Parmesan.
We received 50 strawberry plants, three apple trees, three blueberry plants, a juneberry, and a purple heart plum in the mail today. Where we will plant this bounty is still a bit of a mystery, but the thrill of receiving this stuff in the mail is unparalleled by much else in my book.
These bareroot plants inevitably look spindly and unpromising. But there’s something about planting these adolescent, Charlie Brown trees that makes me much happier than a more mature tree does. It is a commitment to the future. A statement that we will be here and paying attention when they finally blossom and bear fruit. It is a commitment to a landscape and a place, and that adds a layer of meaning to the homely little trees that might not be immediately apparent.
The buds on the cherry tree in our front yard are full and ready to open any day. The whole world feels like it’s coming back to life. I’ve been searching our asparagus beds for signs of tender new spears, pulling the winter mulch away. They’re not ready yet, but that spinach that I showed you a month or more ago is bright green and just about ready to be picked. The strawberry plants in the garden are thinking about blossoms and it’s time to plant onions.
All this spring sweetness has been such a balm after the last several months. We’re ready… We’re here and waiting and paying attention and enjoying each new blossom. What does your spring look like?