Monday, January 24, 2011

When Life Is Crummy, Savor the Crumbs

Crumb cake enjoys iconic status in our family.

By "crumb cake" I don't mean just any old coffeecake with a little bit of streusel topping. Oh, no. A crumb cake is actually far more crumb than cake; the cake exists merely as a platter for the heavy, sweet topping of buttery, cinnamon-flavored crumbs.

For me, growing up in New York, a crumb cake meant just one particular cake--the confectioner-sugar-dusted square of pastry nestled in a white box with the name "Entenmann's" stretching across it in bold navy blue. A cellophane window allowed you to peek in at the winterscape atop the yellow cake and long for the moment when Mom or Dad would slit the little tabs on each side to open the box.

I loved this cake so much that I requested it for my birthday cake several times. I remember candles sticking up out of the perfect square of crumbs; I remember enjoying my little rectangle cut from this square while the other kids at my party tucked into triangular pieces of normal, frosted birthday cake.

That cake had the perfect balance of crumb and cake. Though the yellow cake was subordinate to the crumbs, its texture and depth were important. It had to be moist (so moist that it was compressible, like Wonder Bread) and thick enough so that you tasted it, because without that gentle taste, the crumbs were overpowering. A stale crumb cake was unsavory; a fresh cake made at a bakery nearby that was practically all crumb (and was flat and round, billed as a Pizza Crumb) was surprisingly unappealing.

I remember we all liked the middle part of the cake best, where the crumbs stayed fresh the longest and were concentrated in a dense layer. And if you couldn't wheedle a between-meals slice from my parents, you could certainly snitch a few crumbs off the cake (and, if the cake's appearance was questioned later, claim that they had "fallen off").

When we were older, we would audaciously cut into the cake starting in the middle and working our way out to the edges. The sliced cake would take on odd shapes as people angled to get the most crumb-laden pieces; it resembled an ongoing game of tangrams.

And when the cake was all gone, there were still the crumbs to enjoy--the ones that really, truly fell off the cake without any help and rolled into the tiny alleys between the foil cake pan and the box's interior edges.

Jumping forward a few years and across a continent, I found myself in the crumb-cake-less land of the Pacific Northwest. For two long years I learned how to order lattes and what "venti" meant but lacked the appropriate crumb cake to accompany the coffee.

Then one day as I drove to work, a white billboard with a familiar blue signature appeared on the horizon. Drawing closer, I realized it announced that Entenmann's was coming soon to A Grocery Store Near Me. It was like seeing a glorious sunrise. Upon arrival at the office, I rounded a corner and bumped into a fellow East-Coaster who worked there and we simultaneously exclaimed, "Did you see? Did you see?"

It was a nice taste of home--for a while. After about a decade, though, the cakes started disappearing from local stores. The Entenmann's displays dwindled to a pathetic assortment of boxed doughnuts. A desperate plea emailed to the new company that owned the Entenmann's line yielded only a curt reply that no, the company had no intention of making the cake available in the northwest again.


Ordering online was an absurd option--it would cost about $15 to buy and ship the cake from a deli in New York. The only other option was to learn to bake the darn thing myself, and that's where Cook's Illustrated came to the rescue. It published a recipe for New York Style Crumb Cake in May 2007.

I finally baked this cake about a week ago. Its baking wasn't just out of a desire to sate a sweet tooth or sweet nostalgia, though. This cake was freighted with more than just crumbs. It was baked for a dear relative facing surgery that would result in being diabetic. This cake consisted of sweetness and sweet memories.

The cake was served, with crumbs still intact (none had "fallen off" en route). We sliced the cake in time-approved manner, from the middle out. The central square went to the guest of honor.

The crumbs were pronounced delectable and "just right." The yellow cake was too dry, but this wasn't the recipe's fault--I'd baked it in a glass pan because I didn't have a metal one, and this affected the texture. We didn't mind, though. I figured the cake was just taunting us, reminding us that even though the crumbs get all the glory, the cake counts, too.

It's a sad and worrisome time for our family as life changes now and forever. But we've also shared plenty of stories, and many hugs, along with the crumb cake. That silly square of sweetness serves as a reminder in a couple of ways: Don't save the best for last. Enjoy life from the middle out, right up to the edges. And when life is crummy, savor even the littlest crumbs you can find.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Iron Horse

Horses are very scarce in my part of town, which is not surprising since it is a Major Metropolitan Area.

There used to be ponies just up the hill at the zoo--patient little steeds that ferried children around and around the pony ring--but new exhibits have replaced them. Occasionally, a police horse trots through the park (but not for much longer, as the mounted police force was recently disbanded as a cost-cutting move). And a pony once appeared in our own garden, when we splurged on a pony birthday party for our horse-loving daughter.

You cannot keep a horse in the city (though you are permitted to keep potbellied pigs, a few goats, and up to eight chickens).

But what my neighborhood lacks in quantity of horses it makes up for in sheer bulk of one single horse who stands on a busy street near the grocery store, close to an industrial area.

His name is Buckeye and he's 14 feet long and stands 9 feet, 6 inches tall (that would be 28.2 hands, though I doubt they're measuring him at the withers).

He was constructed by artist Daniel Klennert, who makes all kinds of objects and animals out of scrap metal and driftwood: trains, dinosaurs, sea horses, a giant pig, a goat, a giraffe.

Buckeye incorporates a lot of car parts as well as enough horseshoes to outfit a riding stable. It's a kick to see him as I go about doing mundane errands.

Sometimes we imagine buying him and installing him in our yard, but we're in a residential area and I don't think we're zoned for super-sized steel stallions.

Buckeye's steely gaze.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Great Deal of A Peel

If it were true that an apple a day kept the doctor away, then there would be no Ph.D.'s in Washington State. Washington leads the United States in apple production with up to 100 million boxes of the fruits a year. And that is your wowee-zowee factlet for the week.

Some of those apples wind up on the past-their-sell-by-date rack at our local market, and when we find them there, being sold for a pittance, we know it's time to make applesauce.

Even in the nation's capital of apple growing, apples aren't cheap, usually ranging between $1.49 to $1.99 or more per pound. With the size of apples grown today approaching that of grapefruits, you don't get a lot of individual apples per pound unless you find someone selling windfalls or so-called "schoolboy" apples. We end up using them sparingly so the week's supply is available for taking to work and school for lunch. That's why we only use the slightly bruised ones from the sell-by rack or the ones getting sort of squishy at home for applesauce.

So it was a coup when we bought a dozen apples for three bucks that still looked great and were just starting to get less-than-crunchy, a batch that even included wonderfully tart Granny Smiths.

To make the whole experience totally back-to-the-land-feeling (never mind that we drove to and from the market, and that one of us was on an iPod), we dragged out that icon of Yankee ingenuity, the Apple/Potato Peeler/Corer/Slicer.

Why this marvelous device doesn't have a Shamwow guy to yak it up is beyond me. It's a stubborn but nifty tool that isn't particularly happy about dealing with oversized modern apples, but it's a great labor- and time-saver when it works. Which is most of the time.

Apparently many people have invented apple corer/peelers in the past (including Eli "Mr. Cotton Gin/What the heck's a gin?" Whitney of grade-school history class fame), but the one most commonly used in kitchens today was devised by a David Goodell in the mid-1800s in New Hampshire. Thanks, Dave.

My daughter did a bang-up job of discovering the many ways you could make a hash of using the tool, a discovery process that left her in gales of laughter: she reamed out a cylindrical core from an apple, except it was not the core but rather the flesh of the apple that she bored through; she sent apples through the corer without managing to peel them; she inserted the prongs into an apple and then wondered why it wasn't working, only to discover that she hadn't reset the darn thing and had performed the equivalent of removing a disk from a computer and then wondering why the disk wouldn't run.

Also the suction cup that holds the device to the counter kept failing so that it would buck into the air and spew apple mush down the side of the counter.

Then I would use it, and it would work just fine. I am not so sure that I am pleased that this is apparently the super power bestowed on me (I'd rather be able to fly, or become invisible at will), but oh well. It must be so, because in addition to nicely peeled apple slices, I also managed to produce a record-setting, single-piece apple peel.
It's a jumprope! It's a worm! It's--Super-peel!
Well, record-setting for our kitchen, that is. A tape measure showed that the apple peel stretched for nearly 9 feet (106 inches, to be exact).

Same peel, curled up for a nap.
That makes it a mere shoelace compared to the longest single continuous apple peel on record, which was 172 feet, 4 inches and carefully, carefully cut by one Kathy Wafler Madison, age 16, on October 16, 1976.

But her peel took eleven and a half hours to cut. We produced ours in less than 15 seconds, and it compares favorably with prizewinning peels in the under-18-years category at the Damerham Apple Day in Hampshire, UK.

Oh, and the applesauce came out great, too. Here are the apples just after going into the crockpot with some cinnamon, sugar, and water, where they simmered all night long on low. There are no pictures of the resulting applesauce after blending with an immersion mixer because it's already all gone.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Fire and Ice

And no one loves a Christmas tree
on March the twenty-fifth.

That's the wrap-up to Shel Silverstein's poem "Merry," and he's right--but off by about two and half months.

By January 3, our tree, picked out so carefully and lovingly in early December (every year the chosen tree is definitely the "prettiest tree we've ever had"), starts becoming something more akin to a Wookie overstaying its welcome. Though well watered, it has started to dry out. Needles tinkle to the floor. Branches begin to droop, and ornaments roll off their tips. It's time to put all the Christmas stuff away, make a clean sweep of the house, and look forward to spring tiptoeing onto the scene over the next few months.

Fortunately, we don't have to feel guilty about putting the stripped tree on the sidewalk for waste pickup, as our city collects trees, mulches and composts them, then sells the compost in local stores. (We don't feel bad buying a real tree either, for that matter, as we've seen the local tree farms and hardworking farmers who raise them.) Other cities have similar programs; I've also heard of them being used to bolster dunes on beaches, create brush piles for wildlife, and even nesting sites for small herons and other birds in wetlands.

I've heard tell of people in Sweden traditionally tossing their trees out windows on January 13 (after holding a "tree plundering" first, in which they enjoy any treats left hanging on its boughs), but I've never seen a defenestrated conifer in flight in our very Scandinavian-influenced city.

(And I've never heard of anybody stuffing an old Christmas tree into the attic and keeping it there until spring, like the people in that weird Hans Christian Andersen story "The Fir Tree.")

A lot of people, though, prefer to send off their trees in a blaze of light by burning them, an urge that would definitely resonate with people in ancient cultures who defied the cold and dark of winter with so many fiery rituals of their own.

We joined some friends on our local beach on a crisp, clear New Year's Day to share in some treats and witness a series of crackly, dry trees go up in flames. And all I can say is: Wow. Those things burn fast.

I'm such a worrywart that I would not even dream of leaving Christmas lights lit on a tree at night or when I leave the house, but actually seeing how fast and furious a tree burns would scare the most witless person into digging a firebreak in the carpet around ye olde Tannenbaum.

(Every year, local television stations like to draw our attention to this video showing how fast a dry tree ignites compared to a well-watered one. You can actually hear the glass bulbs exploding on the dry tree as it's engulfed by flames.)

Just to keep the universe in balance, we also visited western hemlocks and other conifers in their natural habitat this past week by traveling up to Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade Mountains, where it was very cold (about 20 degrees), and very snowy (piled up to about 13 feet).

As our toes froze and the energetic, snow-loving kids wearied of sledding and scrambling through drifts and began to look glassy-eyed and chilled, good old Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice" came to mind. (No. Really. It did. I swear. I mean, I didn't, like, stand and recite it, or anything. To tell the truth, all I said was something like, "Hey, there's a poem, isn't there?, something...") (Which you could say about almost any topic, and invent the poet's name, if you wanted to sound all literary, actually.)

Frost definitely said it better. You don't need me to tell you that we're switching from me to him, below.

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great,
And would suffice.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

January 1, 2011: Chilly, Hilly, and Calypte

Low light, shadows, small camera, and distance
conspired to make me fail at catching
the shimmering jewel tones of this little bird,
but trust me, he was gorgeous.
Started off the new year on January 1 by trotting out the resolution I resolutely resolve every year, namely, to get plenty of exercise, eat right, etc., etc. So I followed the hilliest route in the neighborhood when I took the dog for a walk. 
It's a rewarding hike, because it always affords fine views of the mountains and the local lake and sometimes even Puget Sound.

This New Year's Day, it also provided a close-up visit with a little Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna), who perched on a limb above the sidewalk and didn't mind my stopping to take a picture of him (although another hummingbird did mind my pausing--it kept divebombing me, shouting a loud chack! at me before swooping skyward again).

Anna's hummingbirds stay in the Puget Sound region all winter long despite the chill and damp, amazingly enough--you can hear them buzzing and twittering overhead on even the coldest days (and it was cold on New Year's; the low temperature dipped down to 26 degrees F).

By midday, the weak winter sunlight warmed us up above freezing, so a visit to the beach at Golden Gardens wasn't as excruciating as it might otherwise have been--though none of us dared to be as brave (or as foolhardy) as the Polar Bear swimmers who dashed into the bitterly cold water for a splash. Even the bull sea lion who surfaced about 10 feet from shore looked astonished when he saw all those shivering people in the water.

Brisk weather definitely didn't stop sailors and boaters from plying the waves, and the clarity afforded by the cold, clear sky sharpened our view of the beautiful Olympic Mountains.

It also improved the view of these same mountains at sunset from our front steps. All in all, a lovely start to 2011.