Birthdays and Photography,

Today is my birthday, and I officially hit my mid-thirties. When thinking about such things as age, I ponder that the reason the blogging world on all topics is so huge is because my generation is struggling to hold the rapidly increasing technology at arm's length. We want to embrace just enough of it to fully bear hug our pasts, which when you hit your mid-thirties seems like it's rushing away from you in a hurry.

I will remember always that my Gram's favorite age was 35. Her kids (4 of them at the time, my last uncle didn't come along until she was in her 40's) were older and she could do more of what she loved: gardening, raising sheep and goats, experimenting with cheeses, wild yeasts and vinegars, and knitting with such productivity that I sometimes feel slovenly by comparison. She was able bodied and strong. I remember her carrying 2 water filled 5-gallon buckets at a time down to her animals when she was well into her 60's, and with nary a grey hair on her head.

I feel so much like her sometimes that it makes me teary. That the woman I knew when I was a kid and the woman I know her to be now is essentially the same, but I am not. I can appreciate my elders now like I couldn't then, and more than once my Mom has told me that she wishes my Gram was in good health now that I've hit my stride. When thinking of aging, I can only hope that I do so with as much dignity and grace as my Gram. She is now unable to speak, not really able to see, and spends most of the day with her eyes closed, reclining in a chair - but she has a memory that is long and sharp and no one has ever once heard her complain.

A few weeks ago I got an email from Easy Canvas Prints asking if I'd like to review a photo canvas using one of my photographs. I was really surprised actually, since I feel like I really love photography, but that my particular style isn't really mainstream, and maybe doesn't appeal to so many people. I have very limited equipment (my standard gear is an old version iPhone with lots of photo apps and my Canon PowerShot S5IS, which in digital years is ancient at more than 4 years old), and I have to exploit what they do best, like micro-photos. Fortunately for me, micro pics have always been some of my favorites. I feel like the world is a huge place and now that the Internet has invaded it is even larger, and sometimes strangely impersonal. Looking at something small and up close so that you have to stop and examine it appeals to me. You may not know what a micro pic subject is right away, but that's part of the point the photographer makes. That extra time required makes me nostalgic for simpler times.

I figured I'd consider 5 candidates of recent photos I've taken for translation to canvas, five that I picked for their appeal and their story to me personally, and 5 that just happened to be micros. I'll let you in on my process, and early apologies if I get long-winded...

Samco Radishes. I was hit hard by the radish bug this early Spring. I couldn't eat enough of the them, I couldn't wait for them to grow in my garden. I couldn't get enough of their shocking pinkness or of eating them plain or pickled. I took this iPhone pic using the Instagram app. My Instagram stream is private, but I upload some of the photos to flickr from time to time. If you are looking for watery pinks, I like the filters on Instagram a great deal. I am also a total geek for old canning jars like this Samco. I have a few that are very special to me, and likely this one came from my Gram.

Orange Liqueur. I think every year I will tackle some kind of liqueur using the proportion of the Rhubarb Liqueur by Deena Princhep. I read a lot of recipes for infused vodkas and brandies, but I am fully convinced that Deena's method of extraction by nearly lethal grain alcohol (a.k.a. Everclear) is superior. The flavors are pulled more fully, and develop better I think, and when you age them they morph into something completely mellow and amazing. This liqueur is coming along nicely. It bears a strange resemblance (albeit stronger) to Aperol when the bitter sting of orange peel is left on your tongue. I have a feeling it will continue to change as it sits. I took this photo with the Camera+ app which is probably one of my favorites for editing. I usually shoot all iPhone pics in it, then transfer them to other apps for filtering.

My Gram was a collector of old jars and bottles, but not really just for looking at. She loved usable things, and most everything in her home was not only nice to look at but was also functional. Except this old milk jar. The front of this bottle says in red script letters "Dee's Dairy", and my Gram's name is Dolores (she goes by the nickname Dee). Her last name is Mendez, and when she found this bottle with this milk tab stopping it up she never removed it. You can read a little more about it here, by rolling over the image to read the note. This was a Hipstamatic pic, and I liked the fairytale, float colors for this story of the bottle.

Kombucha(s). This was the second bottled batch of kombucha that I made. I was pretty excited, and bottled 4 or so different flavors out of first batches just to see how they differed. Now, I've gotten pretty lazy and like to just bottle a single flavor, usually whatever fruit I have around that needs using or jam which also works too in a pinch. I'm always envious of photographs that are back lit to showcase the color in transparent foods or drinks. This photo isn't really perfect, but it came close enough for me, and reminded me of the obsessions that happen to me in the kitchen.

Atlas Strong Shoulder. This was the image I chose to have reproduced, and it was because it embodied everything about photography: memories, family, technology and the aesthetics that I love. Strong shoulder jars are my favorite. They differ a bit from plain wide mouths, since they do indeed have shoulders that are a bit more pronounced. I love Atlas jars in particular, too - and this one is very old and blue and I don't preserve in it. I likely had taken it filled with crackers or something to my Parents' house and then we ate what was in it and the empty jar caught my eye in their kitchen. That is the green of last Summer out the kitchen window that overlooks the rolling hills and farmland where they live. It looks like a painting to me, the way the greens move within the blue jar. I think of the strength in the preserving, in the strong shoulders of my Mother and Grandmother who instilled in my the abilities to be independent and productive, to be strong and useful with myself, the hard workings of my Dad who led us all to the country, to his dream home, our old farmhouse. This was the image I wanted in my kitchen, and thanks to Easy Canvas Prints, it now is.

before: Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66

after: Atlas Strong Shoulder

This baker's hutch that stands in the corner of my dining room came from my Mom's kitchen prior to it's remodel with ample cabinets. It has an enameled worktop that pulls out which in addition to being an extension of my counters serves as the place where most of my photos are taken. A defunct flour bin on the upper left conceals my cords enabling my near-vintage stereo to work with my iPod. It houses my kombucha and currently my Bachelor's Jam behind sliding wooden doors, and teas and miscellaneous clutter hide cleverly on shelves behind closed doors. Though not in my kitchen proper, it is close enough and I consider it an essential part of my kitchen kit.

My canvas arrived the day before my birthday, a surprise that the Easy Canvas people probably didn't calculate but one that I appreciated very much. I was very happy with the color translation, and the quality of the print, especially since I chose a photo I took with my iPhone. The website is simple to use and the print shipped quickly. It even had hanging hardware attached so I could hang it immediately on the wall.

It causes me to think about art and what qualifies, how I personally am drawn to images and colors like the one I chose to have hanging in my home. It will stand as a marker for my 35th birthday and those things I felt when I picked it, should my memory start to fail me. Not that I'm counting on that anytime soon...

Applesauce Cake, a.k.a. Spanish Bar Cake.

Growing up, it is safe to say that we were a dessert family. There was a Boston Baked Bean crock, seldom devoid of cookies, that had permanence on the edge of the kitchen counter. I could usually hear the telltale rattle of the pottery lid just after my Dad would step in the door from work. Now that I'm an adult and a parent myself, I can appreciate that my Parents wouldn't ordinarily let us kids indulge before supper ourselves. I think of Jerry Seinfeld saying " as adults we understand, even if you ruin an appetite, there's another appetite". If we adults want, we can go ahead and squander our current one on as many cookies as we can hold.

That, my friends, is probably why I don't keep a cookie jar, and save the bulk of my cookie baking for Christmastime. Cookies are just too small and bite sized for me to resist. Cake, however, I am (usually) dutifully able to ignore until after dinnertime, when proper adults who have eaten responsibly for the day are free to indulge. While the family of my childhood always had cookies at the ready, my Mom also frequently had other desserts for those of us who ate our dinners. Cake, pie, kuchens, coffee cakes that were flaky and shaped like enormous tennis shoes (oh, but they were sooooo good!), fruit cobblers or crisps, rice puddings or tapioca. Seldom were we to end the evening without a few bites of something sweet.

One dessert that my Mom often made, also a favorite of my Gram, was this applesauce cake. They both made it in a 9x13 aluminum lidded pan, also with the telltale lid rattle I could hear from a mile away. Most families have a cake or two like this, ones that are made entirely of pantry staples and remind them instantly of home. For me this is that cake. While I most love chocolate cake, this is the cake that takes me straight back to the Northwoods, my Gram's kitchen. Her silver percolator of coffee hot, and this out of the oven just long enough to be frosted in maple cream cheese frosting. We had plate sized pieces, the bunch of us satisfying that Mendez sweet tooth heartily - and with ample amounts of vanilla ice cream alongside it no doubt.

My Mom grew up in Chicago area, a south suburb that at the time was almost rural. She remembers her dad picking up a cake similar to this at the A&P every Sunday and it was called Spanish Bar Cake. My grandfather was Mexican, so when she told me this years ago, I just figured it was something that he affectionately called this moist applesauce cake and didn't consider that the A&P store did actually have a cake of the same name. It's also true I hardly know what an A&P store was, since where I grew up there were no such things.

It's unclear to me the exact origins of our cake recipe. The A&P version (according to many Google perusals) was a dark spice cake with a fluffy, white frosting. Some recipes use molasses or a tablespoon or two of cocoa powder, but all use applesauce and shortening or oil and no butter. Most are studded with varying amounts of walnuts and/or raisins. I'm certain our version comes from a newspaper somewhere over the years, and was written down in my Gram's lovely cursive on a 3x5 index card that has yellowed and browned over time. Our instructions call for the use of a pint of applesauce, since my Gram's tree had, and still has, the best of the best apples for sauce.

Last year's applesauce, from Gram's tree... just a few pints remain before the 2010 batch kicks off.

This cake is topped with a cream cheese frosting flavored with the artificial maple flavoring, Mapleine. As far as the fake stuff goes, it is my favorite. It's a molasses-black bottle made by Crescent and it really isn't all that artificial. It's caramel colorant makes the otherwise snowy frosting into a rich, fall-like color, and it's syrupy sweet maple essence is the key to the Mendez version of Spanish Bar Cake. I was also able to make powdered sugar out of my raw sugar for the first time thanks to the new VitaMix. Even though it was completely powdered, the finished frosting had that crystalline raw sugar bite that I really love. I think everyone in my family knows how to make this frosting, and we never measure, we just add liquid and powdered sugar until the frosting feels like frosting. I will approximate the amounts below.


Spanish Bar Cake (a.k.a. Applesauce Cake)
one 9x13 pan (easily halved for a 9x9 inch pan)
  • 2 1/2 c. ap flour
  • 2 c. sugar (I used raw)
  • 1/4 t. baking powder
  • 1 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 3/4 t. cinnamon
  • 1/2 t. cloves
  • 1/2 t. allspice
  • 1/2 c. shortening or equivalent oil (I used coconut oil)
  • 1/2 c. water (I used raw apple cider I had on hand)
  • 1 pint applesauce (approximately 2 cups)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 c. raisins
  • 1/2 c. walnuts, chopped (or more)
Preheat oven to 350.

Sift or mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix the wet ingredients (I melted my coconut oil first) in a medium bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry, and stir until well incorporated but do not over mix. Fold in the raisins and walnuts.

Spread into a 9x13 inch pan and bake for 25-35 minutes. Cake is done when tester comes out clean, and the top is lightly browned. (Time varies depending on the size and variety of your pan.)

Cool completely, and frost with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (follows).

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting:
  • 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • powdered sugar (3-4 cups more for thicker frosting layer)
  • milk (2-3 T.)
  • 1/2 t. (or more) Mapleine
  • (optional 1-2 T. butter)
Using a hand mixer (or by hand), beat the cream cheese and optional butter until well mixed. Add Mapleine and enough powdered sugar to create a thick frosting. Thin with a bit of milk, and correct with additional powdered sugar should it get too runny.

(I made a sourdough version of this cake as well!)

Many similar recipes call for soaking the raisins, but I don't bother.

These days, I half the recipe and make it in a 9x9 glass baking dish, since I have one boy who won't eat any sweets, and one who eats far too many. I find it's the best way. Not to mention, I would totally eat a 9x13 pan of this cake and it's better to just resist temptation at the baking stage.

I've been thinking about this cake a lot lately, ever since Julia posted her version of the Applesauce Cake. Admittedly, hers is more virtuous in the sugars department (frosting free and all), but I have to wonder if way on down the line, we are using the same recipe. Like language and nomads, recipes have a way of circumnavigation that is mind boggling. I wonder when just exactly it was that I first ate this cake myself, and now that I've set it free into Internetdom, where it will end up next, and for how many generations. I think about the staple foods of my life, the simple things like apples and how some years, the tree didn't produce. Somehow, there was always enough sauce to get by until the next harvest. Who planted that tree - and how old is it? We don't even know the variety of the apples...yet there were always plenty for everyone who needed them.

Pleasant questions for a chilly day - the stuff my daydreaming is made up of. Tomorrow morning, you can think of me with my coffee and perhaps a plate sized piece of this cake for breakfast, since after all - I am an adult, and there will be more appetites. I can always be more responsible the day after tomorrow.

Updates, Wasted Food, and Being Thankful.

It seems like I haven't been cooking lately. I have, really, but I feel like it has been nothing so exciting to warrant a place here in the chronicles of CakeWalk. All week, I've been wondering if I'd make it to my Vegan Monday, and technically, no I didn't. I have eaten a fair share of vegan foods, namely smoothies and vegetable drinks. I am finally a proud owner of a VitaMix, and feel like I've never eaten so many raw fruits and vegetables in my life. I do have lots of new vegan recipes bookmarked, but haven't embarked on them officially and I'll tell you why.

Part of the reason is that I've been reading American Wasteland by Jonathan Bloom (he also blogs at Wasted Food). Well, to be honest, I started it, got a couple chapters in, and then have taken up reading three different bread baking books, trying to see if I can calculate my own flour to water ratios to improve my final bread product... But what I have read so far has changed my cooking habits forever.

I'm always looking for the next thing I can make, and I confess that sometimes this leads me to more waste than I'd like. I have been better this year; it was a bit of a New Year's Resolution last January to make less and consume more of what is already made. But this book sums it up in the very first pages, in fact in the first sentences of the introduction:
Every day, America wastes enough food to fill the Rose Bowl. Yes, that Rose Bowl - the 90,000-seat football stadium in Pasadena, California. Of course, that's if we had an inclination to truck the nation's excess food to California for a memorable but messy publicity stunt.

As a nation, we grow and raise more than 590 billion pounds of food each year. And depending on whom you ask, we squander between a quarter and a half of all the food produced in the United States. Even using the more conservative figure would mean that 160 billion pounds of food are squandered annually - more than enough, that is, to fill the Rose Bowl to the brim. With the high-end estimate, the Rose Bowl would almost be filled twice over.
I will say that the rest of the book so far is equally engaging, taking me on a journey from farm waste to supermarket waste, and finally to neglect in the home. I know that a heated political debate could ensue, but I think it's just criminal to have so much waste when we have a real need to feed people. Signs are everywhere in our cities for food pantries, Food Network frequently endorses Share our Strength, and it's Great American Bakesale (sponsored by refined sugar company giants) to help hungry children in our own country. We have this idea in the US that everything needs to be beautiful and unblemished to be consumed - EVERYTHING in our marketing and media focuses on the beautiful, the young, and the airbrushed. Take a head of iceberg lettuce, or a 18 year old model wearing Louboutin shoes, and the treatment is the same: we don't want it if it isn't hyped and wrapped and neatly approved into our massive consumption lives. And we have real need for people who are hungry. (But hungry for fruits and vegetables, or hungry for pre-packaged meals? That is a whole different debate, as well.)

Now, I know that most people I know don't fit into this generalization. We food shop locally, preserve much ourselves, and limit packaged food purchases. But as my Mom was just telling me, gone are the days when the Grandmothers make a soup out of the dregs of the celery.

My Mom's (maternal) Grandmother was the first generation born in the United States. Her name was Laura, but it was supposed to be "Lottie", her mother's accent too thick for the writer of the birth certificate to understand. My earliest memories of soup were from her summer home in the Northwoods, just down the road from our house. Her pea soup, most clearly, I can still taste on my tongue. Surely, it was nothing more than a ham bone and split peas, maybe some onion, but it was so good that it has stuck with me all of these years, and no soup I've ever made has rivaled it. Her husband, my Great-Grandfather Casey, was a DP, also from Poland. Food was especially precious to him, as was his American citizenship. He was detained in a camp during WWII, and when he finally came to America, he brought with him a heel of bread that he kept until he died - a memory of the scarcity of food he came from and the bounty of his new country.

I was very young when I knew them, but remember all of the stories: their foraging for mushrooms that led to the pumping of stomachs, my Grandfather's impossibly thick accent, the rabbit hutches where they kept the pets that I later found to be sources of food, the bonfires and family times that were so important to them both, and ALWAYS contained food.

Waste was never a part of their lives. My Mom would bring us to their little cottage and it would appear there was nothing to eat. Moments later, somethings were made from nothings, and I'm now remembering this daily in my own kitchen. I would never tell someone else what he SHOULD be eating (except my Husband, of course), and would not support Big Brother stepping in to take hold of our food consumption issues. But this waste! It's hard for me not to cook, or to not have many wide, open mouths that want to eat. But, I've been trying to take pleasure in eating my leftovers, and living more reliably out of my home canned pantry.

The trick, I've found, is trying to make much less. My Husband isn't a fan of leftovers, but some things I can get him to eat a second time. Of all of my bread experimenting, I haven't had much waste, but turned what I did have into breadcrumbs. (An infinitely more exciting task since I just got my very own VitaMix! The crumbs are uniform and even the hard crusts are punished into complete dust, and I can't wait to coat something in them and panfry...)

Dinner tonight will be the end of this bread, turned into toasted panino type sandwich. Glamorous, no, but it will be tasty, and then I can make another loaf of bread!

This one, I kneaded until it felt smooth and elastic. I haven't been making much "kneaded" bread lately, in part because I wasn't sure my starter was vigorous enough. Now, I am certain that my starter is active, and strong enough to lift dough. I started this bread at 11 AM, and it rose, was shaped, rose again, was baked, and came out of the oven at 10:30 late last week. One more notable thing about sourdough, is that it seems to have preternatural ability to be fresh. I made this on Thursday, and though not technically "fresh", it is still absolutely tasty - especially as toast. I used this recipe from King Arthur Flour, but omitted the commercial yeast and sugar. After all, I went through the trouble to raise up the starter, I don't mind waiting around for it to do it's job. Yesterday I was reading in Bread by Jeffrey Hammelman, that the incorporation of air into the dough is essential to the raising of the dough. You can do this too much, and run into problems, but I found that this kneaded loaf did rise more quickly than the wetter doughs I just mix and let rest for 18-24 hours. I feel I have volumes to learn, but that's half the fun.

Fall also brings with it low-light photography that challenges my camera...

I also decided that the brotform is best suited to kneaded, 'drier' doughs. I had no problem tipping the loaf out of the basket, and then carefully lowering it into my dutch oven by hand. I was even able to slash into it with the lame, another KAF purchase that was going largely unused. My next several loaves will likely be kneaded, and I may even try to approach my scientific side and pay more attention to the temperature of dough, air and water and the ratio of water to flour.

It still completely amazes me, and it probably always will, that bread is flour and water. That's it. A union that immediately begins the fermentation process when combined, and can satisfy the world over. Almost no bread is ever "inedible", as well. I baked kind of a brick last week, since the dough was too wet and stuck to my brotform so much that all of the air was knocked out of it. It ended up a flat discus of dough, and was still edible. Honesty permits me to tell you, that we ate a little of it, but then I ditched the rest. Waste. That's the price I pay for bread snobbery - and for never being hungry enough. I should not have thrown away that loaf. My Great-Grandparents wouldn't have. My Gram wouldn't have. My Mom was here, and was eating it. But me, bread-snobbish me, decided that I needed to make a better one, and tossed it out so I wouldn't have to think about it.

On my last library trip, I also picked up One Magic Square, in hopes to learn a bit more about packing more into my raised beds next spring. The author, Lolo Houbein, begins the book with her own family history in the Netherlands. As a child in 1944 and 1945, her family survived a famine - and she tells of eating grass scavenged from beneath the snow to "steady her stomach". At 5 foot 8 inches tall, she withered to 75 pounds, but survived. She has tended her own food sources ever since, and inspires others to grow at least a small percentage of their own foods. Another reminder never to take for granted all that America's food has to offer us, and to be responsible and diligent with what we do have. That probably includes that loaf of brick-ish bread I tossed out.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for enough food and the knowledge of how to prepare it. I'm thankful that I am the only one in my house that likes squash, and I have 9 (!) of them to figure out how to eat myself thanks to my CSA the past several weeks. I am thankful that as the season grows colder, we can heat our house (and that my baking bread warms the kitchen so that I keep the thermostat a bit lower). I am thankful for my picky-eating family, and never abandon hope that they will someday also like things like squash. I am also thankful that I have many everyday reminders not to waste food.