Friday, January 27, 2012

Good Boy's Cake

Back in 1975 when Dennis and I first got together we shared an old farmhouse with Jeff. We all wanted to plant a garden, so Dennis and Jeff tilled an area south of the house and made it  ready for planting. I was so thrilled to have a garden at last that I baked a cake to celebrate.

Both guys loved the cake and asked what kind it was. Out of gratitude for their garden work, I told them it was "Good Boy's Cake." Actually I had used a recipe clipped from the Kansas City Star called "Date Chocolate Torte."

Everyone who likes cake loves this one. It's a hit at pot luck dinners, and easy to carry to them. Family ask for it for birthday celebrations. I made one just yesterday and while Dennis and I were eating dessert he mentioned that one of his students, who had a piece two years ago, has asked for the recipe several times. So, Maude, this one's for you. If you know a good boy or girl, make 'em one.

Good Boy’s Cake
(Date Chocolate Torte)

1 cup chopped dates and 1 cup hot water
1 cup sugar 
1 cup butter (or as little as ½ cup*)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 3/4 cups flour
2 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

Combine chopped dates and hot water in a small bowl. Set aside.

Cream the butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well.

Sift together the flour, cocoa, salt and soda.

Add dates and flour mixture alternately to creamed ingredients.

Pour into greased and floured 9" x 13" pan. Sprinkle with 6 ounces chocolate chips and 1/2 cup chopped nuts. Bake 35 minutes in 350º oven.

* A full cup of butter makes results in a dense torte-like texture, while 1/2 cup yields a lighter, more cake-like result. Yesterday I used 3/4 cup of Smart Balance butter blend.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Dog's Tale

We must have bought some bad dog food for Annie because she started throwing up frequently and became unsociably flatulent. She was reluctant to eat the food and often left it untouched in her bowl.

Last evening, because Dennis was teaching a class at KU, I was eating a simple supper at the kitchen bar when Annie came and stared at me. That means, "I want to go outside." She wanted to go into the snake room* where her food bowl is. She walked up to the bowl, stared at the pile of dry dog food, turned and walked back into the house.

"I get it," I said. "I'll cook some brown rice and hamburger for you."

After starting water to boil and measuring the rice I rummaged in the freezer and found a somewhat freezer-burned hamburger patty. I added that lump to the pot.

Forty-five minutes later when the timer went off, Annie came to the kitchen, quite excited about the aroma. Annie never pays attention to the food I make for Dennis and me, but somehow she knew this food was for her. I broke the hamburger into smaller bites and mixed it back into the rice. It was too hot to eat, but Annie was so eager I put about a fourth of the mess into her bowl and added a little cold water. She ate it with great relish.

I go early to bed so I didn't see Dennis until this morning. While we were having a cup of coffee I told him the story of Annie and her hamburger rice.

A look of surprise came over Dennis' face. "That food was for Annie?" he asked. "I was hungry when I got home so I heated some for my supper."

A little later we went to the deck with Annie to give her the rest of her hamburger rice. Hands off, Dennis!

* We call our entry room "the snake room," but that's another story.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Pippi's Stars

One night almost two years ago when Pippi came for a sleepover, the first thing Pippi wanted to do was build a fairy house in the front flower bed.

After dinner, when bedtime came, we followed our established tradition. Pippi carried my jewelry boxes to the bed where she examined each item while I lay beside her and told her its history. After jewelry time we discussed what we would have for breakfast. We fell asleep while still pondering the relative merits of pancakes and biscuits.

The next morning after breakfast, the menu having been finalized at last, we undertook a creative project. This time we chopped up old broken crayons, put them in star-shaped muffin cups and melted them in the oven.  We thought the result were spectacular.

When Pippi moved with her family to Maine last August, our sleepovers were history. We both lamented the loss.

Pippi's mom told me recently that little brother Zander had broken the last intact star. She said Pippi had wept bitterly.

Last week, when we were preparing a package to mail for Pippi's birthday, Dennis and I decided to make a new set of stars. They turned out just fine.

Yesterday was Pippi's ninth birthday. She called me, excited about her new star collection. She'd had a fine celebration that included an ice skating party. How I wish I could have been there to celebrate with her, except, of course, for the ice skating.

If you want to make new crayons out of old ones, here's how:

Remove paper wrappers and chop the crayons into 1/4-inch lengths. Put the chopped crayons into muffin papers set into a muffin pan, or use a silicon muffin pan without papers. Put the pan into a 200º oven until all of the pieces have melted. These took 20 minutes to melt.

When the crayons have turned to liquid, remove the pan from the oven and let it cool. The melted crayons firm up rather quickly. When they have hardened, turn them out of the pan and, if you used muffin papers, peel them off. That's it.

This project is fun to do with a child. Pippi peeled the paper off crayons and selected the colors for each star. I handled the oven part. For the new batch, not having Pippi to peel the crayon papers, I soaked the crayons in warm water. That make the papers easy to remove.

Getting Personal with Old Age

A new reality has entered my consciousness; I have passed through the gateway to old age.

In the summer of 2011 Dennis launched an interdisciplinary project at KU called "New Cities." The objective was to discover and help create the best retirement environment for the huge boomer population. Many of our evening conversations centered on various aspects of the question – housing, medical care, transportation, intergenerational contact and so forth. At that time I still viewed the topic from a distance emotionally. "They will need...," I would say. Although I'm at least ten years older than the boomers, old age was something other than me, something farther down the road.

Then things began to change. Last June my rheumatoid arthritis went on a rampage, destroying my wrists. This led to three surgeries in four months, two of them to fuse my wrists  which now don't move at all. It was a terrible loss. Moreover, for six months I was dependent on others for almost everything. I couldn't even bathe without assistance. Loss of independence, even temporarily, changes one's perspective dramatically.

When Butch died without warning my grief was tinged with the knowledge that I, too, may be on the brink of extinction.

When my friend Linda had urgent, unanticipated quintuple by-pass surgery last week, my sympathy was tinged with the knowledge that we are all in this together.

Last Friday when I sat with Nancy's and Carol's father while he was being prepared for surgery, my compassion for him was tinged with the realization that our youth is well and truly gone. He has lost his hair, his legs and much of his mind and seems a cruel caricature of the handsome man he once was.

In The New Yorker, January 23, the former United State Poet Laureate Donald Hall writes about his experience as an octogenarian. He describes old age as "a ceremony of losses." But brooding and lamentation accomplish nothing. "It is better," he says, "to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers."

It is true. Once full of plans and busy with projects, I now am more observer than actor. Looking out various windows at familiar scenes as they transit through the seasons is sometimes enough to fill my day. Oh, I still make plans and carry some of them to completion, but they are not long-range. When I envision the future I think not of myself but of our grandchildren and how they will find their places in the world. They are my comfort and my hope.

Dennis and Zander, 2010

Dennis, too, finds great pleasure in our grandchildren. Although in this photo Zander seems none to pleased with his situation, he is now three years old, enthusiastically embracing life. Curious, energetic and busy, he has hopes and aspirations. Because of him and our five other grandchildren, I am resolved to apply much of my diminishing energy supply to preservation of our environment so that they may live as well as I have.

In the meantime, when Dennis and I talk about New Cities, I find myself saying, "We will need...."

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Winter Harvest

Dennis has mastered cold frame gardening, I believe. He seeds the cold frames with lettuce and spinach in September. As cold weather approaches, he surrounds the cold frames on three sides with bales of straw for insulation. When temperatures drop below freezing he covers the frames with old blankets and anchors the blankets with pieces of firewood to keep the wind from blowing the covers off.

Today the temperature is 27º, expected to fall to 13º tonight. The frames have been covered since yesterday afternoon and won't be uncovered until the weather warms again, maybe tomorrow.

Both frames also are protected on the north by our cedar windbreak.

Sorry, it's too cold today to open the frames so I can't include pictures of the growing lettuce and spinach, but here's the big basket of lettuce Dennis harvested yesterday, January 16. We ate some of it in a salad and filled two large bags for salads the rest of this week.

Our micro-scale farming efforts have provided a continuous supply of fresh food since last February, when Dennis brushed the snow off a cold frame, opened it and found plenty of spinach ready for a salad. For just a little effort we reap great rewards. For some reason I can't explain, the whole business delights us.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter's Beauty

Many people dread winter. Sure enough summer living is easy and colorful. But winter has its own beauty for those who have the eyes to see.

For me, a major part of winter beauty is in leafless trees. Their arms reach up and stand against the sky as pure silhouettes, their intricacy revealed.

Groves of bare trees and fallow fields join the cobalt sky to form a stark abstraction.

My favorite comes at the end of a winter's day, when the last rays of sunlight fall across the Chicken Creek valley to spotlight a venerable sycamore growing on the south bank of the creek. Going to the deck of our house to watch the show as day is dying is my daily ritual. Here's what I see for a few fleeting moments, a sight available only on a clear winter afternoon, only from the deck of this house, only here in Paradise.

My sycamore view is unique, but my love of its ephemeral beauty is not unique. Many of us, I'm sure, have favorite scenes that we return to again and again. We cherish these sights because they lift us out of ourselves and sustain our spirits in the time of long shadows.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Break-In Artist

The last four weeks passed as if in a dream. No cooking, no keyboarding, no sewing, no laundering. At first I couldn't even take a shower without help. A third operation in less than four months took the starch out of this old hen. At first my right arm bore a very large half-cast plus yards of padding and gauze. Then I graduated to a splint, black and tan this time.

(An aside: see that crooked ring finger? It is fused at the second joint, but the surgeon didn't set it straight.)

The splint restricts finger and thumb movements, so I've had to find ways to manage the smallest tasks. Last night I needed to open three bottles of supplements but that turned out to be a daunting task. I needed three tools to cut through plastic shrink-wrap, pull off a plastic strip, and penetrate inner seals.

 What a pile of debris! What a triumph to have broken into the vault! The two bottles of cranberry extract were each half-filled, so I consolidated them into one. That created another piece of debris.

The Tylenol murderer is responsible for part of this. In 1982 an evil person put potassium cyanide tablets in bottles of Extra-Strength Tylenol on the shelves of various Chicago supermarkets. Seven people died after swallowing what they thought was Tylenol. Congress jumped in and passed anti-tampering laws. If you ask me it's overkill, pardon the expression. Wouldn't one seal be enough? Who wouldn't recognize one broken seal as a sign the bottle had been previously opened?

Another aspect of the mess in the photo has to do with manufacturers who half-fill bottles of supplements. What are they thinking? Is this an effort to fool us into thinking we're buying a big bottle of something or other? Do they have bottles only in one-size-fills-all? Whatever the motive, I'm left with an unnecessary bottle to add to our local landfill.

Why, I wonder, don't consumers rise up against the horrid packaging we encounter daily? Everyone, normal people and handicapped alike, struggle with packaging.

Where should we begin?

P.S. I took off the splint to write this. Although this gives me an exhilarating sense of freedom, I have to put it back on and wear it for two more weeks.