Hanging clothes out to dry on a beautiful sunny day gives me a Zen-like peace. It is a ritual that I practice every year, once the warm days of spring arrive. Women (and sometimes men) have hung out the laundry as far back as when clothes were washed down by a stream and pounded with rocks to get out the dirt.
The smell and feel of sheets warmed by gentle breezes and bright sunlight is like nothing else. My mom hung her clothes out to dry until the last two years of her life, when she sold her home and move into an apartment. She was an environmentalist before it was politically correct and abhorred using energy to run a clothes dryer when the sunshine was abundant and free.
Not only is line-drying laundry one of the earliest uses of solar energy, it is ecologically sound and leaves no carbon footprint. The sun is also a natural disinfectant and the bleaching effect of its rays leave your whites, whiter without the use of chlorine. Air dried towels have a nice, rough texture that will give your skin an invigorating rub, exfoliating old dry skin without the use of creams and chemicals.
Drying your clothes outside in the fresh air is THE BEST in so many ways. I find my life slows down, even if for just a few minutes, when I’m hanging out the wet-wash. The breeze and sun gently touch me. I take a deep breath, smell the warm earth and listen to the birds calling to each other across my backyard. One of the finest moments is when I see Canada geese in their familiar V formation and hear their throaty honk high overhead.
A mile outside of the village are several Amish farms. It is a glimpse into a simpler world: buggies waiting by the back stoop, horses in the paddock and, of course, clothes on the line.
It is a shame that my grand-daughters’ generation won’t know the sun-sweet scent of line dried sheets or the rough touch of a towel. But, maybe they will remember the good old days when Grandma hung her clothes out to dry.
March is Women’s History month and I’ve been thinking of the amazing women who have touched my life – women who persevered and kept on keeping on even when it wasn’t easy. There were so many but a few stand out in my memory.
Bonnie and I were in our early twenties but she was way older than me in so many ways. One day she told me she was pregnant and her boyfriend had hit the road running. We worked in a department store for little more than minimum wage. I still lived at home with mom and dad.
Her parents had just kicked her out. But Bonnie kept doing what needed to be done. She came to work every day, wearing the same pair of maternity pants. She could only afford the luxury of one pair and washed them out every night. She added extra time to her commute to accommodate pulling over to the side of the road and losing her breakfast most mornings.
When I think of her, all these years later, I am still humbled by her courage. Sadly we lost touch. She is someone I wish was still in my life.
Another mom-on-her own was Donna. Her doctor had told her that she would never conceive a child, but low-and-behold she did. The father wasn’t a man she could count on or one she wanted in her life. He agreed to forfeit his parental rights if she wouldn’t seek child support. For her it was an easy choice. She made up her mind to do whatever it took to raise her son on her own.
Donna had long ago moved out of her parent’s house and even though she had their loving support she didn’t want to burden them. This left her on her own financially but free to decide her future and her child’s.
She knew her focus for the next twenty years would be providing a stable home, lots of love and an education for her son. She set out to acquire the skills necessary to take care of her small family. That included going back to college for her Bachelor’s degree and also signing up at Vo-Tech for a class in auto-mechanics. I think she eventually took a shop class, too. She was a classy and courageous woman. I’m still in awe of her.
I know most daughters think their moms are amazing – but mine really was! She met my dad during WWII, married him and had a son. When the war ended a few months later, she left her home in England and said good-bye to friends and family. She didn’t know if she would ever see them again. My brother and mom came across the Atlantic on a ship; she not knowing if the young American sailor she’d married would still want her now that the intensity that came with war-time was over. When she arrived, my dad’s family didn’t know what to make of his English bride. It took a while before she was accepted into the family. I can’t imagine leaving my life behind and starting new in a strange land. She was one brave woman.
Then there came a time when I would live a life on my own. I faced some dark hours but, I was fortunate to have the remarkable examples of the women who have woven their way through my life to help me get through the tough times and realize there were better days ahead. They had shown me what true courage is.
This time of year, at the end of winter, my thoughts wander out to the garden. I’m already thinking about what vegetables I will grow in my raised beds. The other day my green thumb got to itching and I planted some basil and dill in pots on the kitchen counter. I’m one of those people who keep a five-gallon bucket of garden dirt in the basement, so it doesn’t freeze. I never know when I’ll get the need to have my hands in some good black loam.
The older I get the more I realize that some of the old-time life skills that were a given in my mom’s day are becoming lost in today’s busy, plugged-in lifestyle. One of those skills is preserving food by canning and freezing. When my son was a preschooler, a farmer friend let me have a large garden plot at his mom’s farmhouse on the edge of the village. I grew everything from the usual tomatoes and cucumbers to brussel sprouts, red Pontiac potatoes and cantaloupe. The vegetables from that garden feed us for many winters. Around that same time, I worked with a woman who took her two-weeks vacation every year at harvest so she could can fruits and vegetables.
Preserving food for the winter still has its advocates, at least in my corner of rural America. While some families depend on their home canned and frozen foods, grown in the family garden or purchased from the local farmers’ market, other people enjoy canning up their own specialty foods, just for the fun of it.
A good example of the canning hobbyist is my neighbor, Ron. Last fall, he canned a batch of tomato-based vegetable juice. He handed me a pint to try, over the backyard fence. It was tasty with a nice spicy flavor. (I’ve included his recipe at the end.)
Another canning hobbyist I know is Karen who lives a couple of counties north of me, out in the country. She involves her husband in canning up salsa from beginning to end. They grow all of the ingredients in their backyard garden. They both take care of the weeding, the harvesting and the slicing and dicing on canning day.
Food preservation begins in the late spring with the earliest vegetables including peas and rhubarb. I prefer to freeze both of these vegetables over canning them. Rhubarb is easy to freeze: just rinse and dice. And peas retain better color and texture when frozen.
Freezing and canning is also a way to save on your food budget. I love the color of yellow, orange and red sweet bell peppers in my cooking. I buy them on sale and freeze for later use. The process is easy: rinse the peppers then remove seeds and pith. Cut into thin slices, spread out on a cookie sheet and freeze overnight. Then scoop the pepper slices into zip-style plastic bags or into freezer containers. When ready to use, just take out the amount needed. That’s all there is too it.
Green beans and broccoli need to be blanched, which is the process of dipping the prepared vegetables into a bath of boiling water for a couple of minutes, cooling in ice water, draining and then freezing.
Again, if you’re processing a small amount of vegetables, spread them on a cookie sheet to freeze and store in zip-style bags. That makes it easy to take out only the amount of vegetables needed.
Canning can be a year-round activity. I enjoy making up a big batch of turkey vegetable soup, using the turkey carcass and leftover meat and gravy from Thanksgiving dinner. A ham bone from Christmas can be added to navy beans for a pot of delicious bean soup that can be canned or frozen to enjoy all winter.
An important advantage to canning and freezing your own fruits and vegetables is knowing exactly what is going into the jar or freezer bag. There are no chemical preservatives or artificial colors and flavors added. Salt can be eliminated and the amount of sugar can be decreased.
My canning “bible” is Ball’s Blue Book of Canning. Everything I’ve ever wanted to know regarding recipes, processing times and pressures is in that book.
RON’S TOMATO-VEGGIE JUICE
10 lbs tomatoes, peeled and chopped (about 8 quarts)
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 large onions, chopped
2 carrots,cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 c chopped celery
1/2 c chopped green pepper
1/4 c sugar
1 T salt
1 t Worcestershire sauce
1/2 t pepper
DIRECTIONS: Combine tomatoes, garlic, onions, carrots, celery and green pepper in a large Dutch oven or soup kettle. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Cool. Press mixture through a food mill or fine sieve. Return juice to Dutch oven. Add sugar, salt, Worcestershire sauce and pepper. Bring to a boil. Ladle hot juice into hot sterilized quart jars, leaving 1/3 inch head space. Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to each jar. Adjust caps. Process for 40 minutes in a boiling-water bath. Yields 7 to 8 quarts.
The stark and desolate beauty of a northern winter leaves me in awe. While the lushness of summer and soft warm breezes are welcome after months of cold and snow, there is a sense of the divine in the silent splendid wonder of winter.
I am a cross-country skier and I love being out in the brisk clear air hearing the swoosh of my skis on fresh snow. The best way to enjoy the winter is to get outside and play. I’ve kicked around the idea of snowshoeing for a couple of years and finally bought myself a pair as a Christmas present to myself. L.L. Bean offers a package deal including a set of poles and a very nice carrying bag, so I placed my order on-line and waited for the UPS guy to come.
Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are inexpensive activities and a great way for a family to spend time together. Once you have your gear the rest can be free. There is no need to travel to a ski resort, no lift tickets to buy or expensive rooms to rent, unless you choose to go that route. There are many local places where you can go for little or no charge. Just a few are, Hidden Lake Gardens, MacCready Reserve, Waterloo Recreation Area and The Dahlem Conservancy.
My favorite, when I’m going out alone, is the Dahlem Conversancy. There is a variety of terrain, from the open prairie to the pine forest. The trails are well marked and I feel safe out on the trails all by myself. I also have the office number on speed dial. If I run into trouble – a twisted ankle – they will quickly come to my rescue. The use of the trails is free, but it is well worth the small fee for a membership.
Last week I took a stroll through the woods on my snowshoes. When I got back in, I found I’d been out for two hours. I had no idea. The time went by so fast.
Here is a sample of what I saw while I was in the woods:
I’ve never made a layer cake in all my days of baking, but I talked myself into giving it a try.
I belong to the Addison library book club and we were just finishing up reading To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. Our monthly meeting was coming up and I wanted to surprise everyone with a Lane cake. For all of you who’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ll remember that Jean Louise mentioned the neighbor Maudie’s, Lane cake.
Little did I know what I was getting into. It turns out that an authentic Lane cake has three layers – I had two 9-inch round cake pans. I needed one more. Checking in the housewares department of a local store I found that the cake pans to match what I have only come in a two-pack; one more than I needed. I wanted to stay with the same kind of pan so the layers would bake evenly. A dark pan will cook faster than a shiny aluminum one. Buying the two pans cost me just north of ten dollars.
I also needed a bottle of brandy. Not being a whisky drinker I asked the man stocking the shelf the difference between whisky (which is less expensive) and brandy. Come to find out, he wasn’t a drinker and didn’t know. He offered an assumption that is must be in the brewing. The cheapest bottle on the shelf was almost fourteen dollars. Then I needed cake flour. I thought about using regular white flour, but decided at this point I was going to stay as close as possible to the “authentic” recipe. Next I bought unsalted butter and parchment paper. So far, the cost of the cake was pushing close to thirty dollars. I was grateful that I had the rest of the ingredients on hand.
Back when I turned thirteen, I asked my mom to make me a layer cake for my birthday. She’d always made us – our birthdays are on the same day – a nine by thirteen inch single layer cake. This would be her first attempt at a layer cake. She did her best. I realize that now, but it was nowhere near as pretty as the picture in her cookbook. I was at that ignorant age and selfish and I didn’t hide my disappointment. Never once, did I think of asking if she would like me to make her a birthday cake. I hope I made it up to her after I grew up and saw what a great mom she was.
Now it was baking day. I looked over the Lane cake recipe. I decided to start with chopping the pecans, then set the butter on the counter to soften, removed the eggs from of the fridge and forgot to get the milk out so it would warm up to room temperature. The microwave took care of that.
It is impossible to line round cake pans with parchment paper. I finally gave up. I greased the paper and just let it sit on top of the pans in a sheet. I wanted the edges to be long enough to hang over the rim of the cake pans so I could lift the layers out once they were done baking and cooled.
I sifted the dry ingredients into a bowl and set it aside. Added the vanilla to the warm milk and using my mixer, I creamed the butter. Once I had the batter ready to spoon into the cake pans it hit me that there wasn’t any sugar listed in the ingredients. That just didn’t sound right. I tasted the batter and it wasn’t good.
I turned on my computer and found a recipe for Lane cake on the Southern Living website. Ah ha! The recipe was the same as the one I had except for the two cups of sugar that should’ve been creamed with the butter. It was too late for that now, so I dumped the sugar on top of the batter and mixed it in. That was a close call!
I dropped a large serving spoonful of batter in the center of each piece of parchment paper and then tucked the paper down into the cake pans as best I could.
Because of the way the paper fit into the pans, the edges of the cake didn’t come out nice smooth and round. They were a bit scalloped but that was easy to hide with frosting.
While the layers were baking, I started making the filling. At the last minute I noticed that the raisins were supposed to be chopped. I almost said the heck with that then let out a sigh. I started chopping. I muttered “keep it authentic” a couple of times. Chopping a cup and a half of raisins takes a while and by the time I was done, my finger was sore from pushing down on the knife.
The layers were done before the filling was heated up but they needed to cool anyway. I let the cakes layers cool for about 5 minutes then lifted them from the pans using the edges of the parchment paper.
The recipe said to heat the filling pecan/coconut/raisin/butter mixture to 170 degrees on a candy thermometer. Once it was hot enough, I took the pan off the burner and added the rest of the ingredients. Low and behold, the filling needed to cool too. I set it out in the cold garage to speed up the process.
Now it was time to assemble to cake. The parchment paper was worth the trouble because it peeled off the cake layers clean and without any trouble. Once the layers were all stacked, with filling between each one and on top of the last, the cake looked pretty good. It listed a little to one side, but all in all, not bad.
Next came the frosting. I’d forgotten about the frosting. The first recipe – the one without the sugar – called for a whipped cream frosting made with unflavored gelatin. I didn’t have whipping cream or gelatin in the house. The other recipe called for 7 minute frosting that is made by using a mixer over a bowl of boiling water. That sounded like a sure plan for disaster to me. I looked in my Good Housekeeping Cookbook from the early 1970’s. I found a frosting recipe using Karo Syrup, egg whites and vanilla. All things I had on hand.
The frosting looked and tasted pretty good. I painted in on the sides of the cake like troweling plaster on a wall. All was well until I noticed the frosting slowly sliding down the sides of the cake and pooling on the serving plate. What to do? I put the cake in the refrigerator to see if cooling down the frosting would thicken it up. Thank goodness it worked.
The next morning, the day of the book club meeting, I did some patch work with the extra frosting I saved and scraped off the pool of frosting from the plate. I warned everyone that I had no idea if the cake was any good. Much to my surprise and relief, it was delicious and it all held together.
There was plenty for the book club, the librarian and a couple of patrons who had the good luck to come to the library that afternoon.
Here is the recipe I used:
To Kill a Mockingbird’s Lane Cake
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
2 cups white sugar
3 ½ cups cake flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
2 teaspoons baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk at room temperature
8 egg whites at room temperature – save yolks for filling
¾ cup of unsalted butter
12 egg yolks – save two whites for frosting
1 ½ cups white sugar
1 ½ cups chopped pecans
1 ½ cups chopped raisins
1 ½ cups coconut
½ cup bourbon
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups dark corn syrup
2 egg whites at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
DIRECTIONS: Cake – Line three 9-inch round cake pans with greased parchment paper. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar with an electric mixer. In a separate bowl sift together cake flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt. Measure out milk and add vanilla to it. Alternately add dry ingredients and milk to creamed butter. Set aside. Batter will be pretty thick. In a separate bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Add a good scoop of egg whites to the cake batter and mix. Add rest of eggs whites and mix well. Divide batter evenly between the three pans. Bake at 325 degrees for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean and layers are lightly browned. Set aside to cool.
Filling – Melt butter and set aside to cool but not re-harden. In a large saucepan, mix together egg whites and sugar. Add cooled butter. Heat mixture, whisking constantly, to 170 degrees on a candy thermometer and mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Mix in the coconut, pecans and raisins. Cook and stir for two more minutes. Remove from heat then add bourbon and vanilla. Stir to combine and let cool before spreading on cake layers.
Assembly – place one layer on a serving plate and spread 1/3 of filling mixture over top. Add the second layer, repeat with filling then add third layer. Spread remaining filling over the top.
Frosting – In a small saucepan, heat corn syrup until boiling. Remove from heat. In a large bowl, beat egg whites until foamy. Add salt and continue beating until soft peaks form. Slowly pour in hot syrup continuing to beat for 6 to 8 minutes until frosting is fluffy and forms peaks when beater is raised. Beat in vanilla. Cool before using.
The memories of the people and pets who are missing are bitter-sweet and best shared, but I tend to keep my sadness close and only bring it out in the quiet dark times. Although, there are moments I’m hit hard from out of no where, by a memory. For years, after my dad passed away, I could be anywhere: driving down the highway, having lunch with friends, in church, listening to music – anywhere – and WHAM!, there would be the pain of losing dad all over again.
But it is always worse during the holiday season. At least I know that now he’s not alone. Mom and my youngest brother are with him, along with all but two of the aunts and uncles.
And there was Fluffy, before him, who is buried under the bleeding heart in the back corner of my yard.
New additions to the family have saved the holiday season and are a delightful blessing. I can see my late husband in our granddaughters. The oldest one has the family look that has been passed down from generation to generation. And I can’t help but smile as they laugh and go through their antics. They do a lot to fill up the empty spaces.
And thank God for old and new friends, they laugh when I need to laugh, cry when I need to cry and carry me when I can’t carry myself.
In the evening I look at my Christmas tree, bright with colored lights and filled with precious memories. I raise a glass of wine in a toast to all of the amazing people who have shared my life, to all of the people I am still to meet and to the adventures we will have. I am looking forward with joy and anticipation.
I wish you all a happy holiday season and a prosperous New Year.
My contribution to the family’s Thanksgiving dinner was a batch of cherry bars. I found the recipe that was originally my sister-in-law’s, in my binder of favorite recipes. Seeing her handwritten cards brought back images of holidays past, when we were all living in Michigan and the cousins were still children. Now the cousins are grown with children of their own but the family traditions, mostly food, continue.
When my mom was the one cooking the holiday dinners, we always had turkey for Thanksgiving and ham for Christmas and they were the dinners I made when my family was young. To this day, it doesn’t feel like a “real” Thanksgiving without turkey and stuffing, or a “real” Christmas without ham and sweet potatoes.
Over the years, the crowd grew at mom and dad’s to include orphaned friends – those people whose family was either too far away to visit, or who didn’t have any family. Those were the dinners I always set a standard by.
This year my step-son did the cooking and had asked me to bring the cherry bars. Because of work schedules we were celebrating Thanksgiving on Friday. Thursday morning I started getting ready to make the cherry bars, opened the cupboard door and found there was no coconut. That couldn’t be. I looked again, knowing but not believing there was no coconut. I stood there staring at the empty place where it should be.
As first I was irritated. For heaven’s sake. Then I accepted the fact and knew what I had to do. Being Thanksgiving Day the nearest open grocery store was 25 miles away. I put on my shoes and coat, grabbed my keys and got in the car. An hour and 20 minutes later I was back in my kitchen.
The new jar of maraschino cherries that I’d bought last week didn’t want to open. I rummaged in the utensil drawer and took out my handy-dandy E Z grip jar opener. I held the jar against my thigh and gave the E Z grip jar opener a twist. Cherry juice spilled down the leg of my jeans, onto the kitchen rug and the floor. My cat Izzy, who is always at my feet when I’m cooking – hoping something will fall her way – started licking the sweet syrup off the rug. I knew she would work up to a huge hairball if I didn’t stop her soon. I folded up the rug, much to her dismay and tossed it into the basement to be washed later. I filled the sink with soapy water and wiped down the floor. Cherry bars are easy to make and they should’ve been cooling on the counter by now.
Luckily nothing else happened, the cherry bars were delicious and there weren’t any left to bring home. It’s a good thing I sampled two – no make that three- before taking them to dinner Friday.
Here is the recipe and be sure to have coconut on hand:
1 cup flour
3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
½ cup cold butter
¼ cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 c white sugar
¼ teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup coconut
½ cup quartered maraschino cherries
DIRECTIONS: Pastry Crust – Line an 8 x 8 inch baking pan with aluminum foil, leaving 3 to 4 inches overhang on opposite sides. This will allow you to lift the cookies out of the pan to cut. In a shallow bowl, combine flour and confectioners’ sugar. Dice cold butter into the bowl and cut in with a pastry blender until mixture looks like pea-size crumbs. Pour mixture into baking dish. Spread evenly with fingers and lightly press into the bottom of the pan. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees.
Return to oven and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes. Let cool and lift from pan. Cut into squares. Makes about 18 cookies. Note: I usually look over a recipe before I start to see if there is any chopping, dicing, slicing, etc. that needs to be done. I do it first so that when I get started all that’s left to do is to add the ingredients.
A variety of Squash Soup recipes were recently featured in my column, The Recipe Exchange. I’ve never tasted squash soup – I’m not a fan of squash – but one recipe caught my eye and I decided to give it a try. There is only room for three recipes in the column and often some very good recipes have to be left out. This particular recipe wasn’t featured in The Recipe Exchange.
I started out trying to find some butternut squash. My usual grocery store had acorn squash, but no butternut. The farmers’ market, over at the lake, closed after Labor Day, so that source was out of the question. I called Adam’s Farm Market over by Liberty and they had a few left. They were going fast, “so I’d better come and get them today.”
I wasn’t sure where the farm market was located so I looked up the address in the phone book and Map-quested the location. It was an easy fifteen minute drive from my house. As it turned out, they were closing for the season the next day. I’d made it just in time.
I bought my two butternut squash and a Granny Smith apple. The rest of the ingredients, I had on hand. The recipe called for the squash to be cut in half, lengthwise, and roasted in the oven. Here is a little trick I learned to make cutting squash easier: Pierce the squash all over with a sharp knife and microwave for 1 to 2 minutes. This softens the squash just enough to make cutting easy without turning the squash to mush.
At first I thought the flavor of this soup was a little strong but the more I ate, the more I liked it. I was surprised that, without adding any sugar, the soup had a slightly sweet taste. I would definitely recommend this recipe. I’ve added it to my notebook of Really Yummy Recipes and will make it again.
2 butternut squash
1 Granny Smith apple
2 T butter, divided
½ of a yellow cooking onion
1 tablespoon dried sage
2 teaspoon salt, divided
3/8 teaspoon pepper, divided
2 ½ cups chicken broth
2 ½ cups water
1/3 cup heavy cream
DIRECTIONS: Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds and stringy stuff. Place, cut side up, on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter. Baste squash halves with butter and season with ½ teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon of pepper. Roast for 50 minutes.
Remove from oven and let cool. Peel and core the apple. Dice into ½ inch pieces. Dice the onion. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a Dutch oven or large saucepan. Add sage and mix well. Sauté onion and apple over medium heat until softened.
Scoop cooled squash into Dutch oven and throw away the skins. Stir into apples and break up big chunks of squash.
Add chicken broth, water, 1 ½ teaspoons salt and ¼ teaspoon of pepper. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and blend in the cream. Puree small batches of the soup in a blender. Pour into a large bowl. Continue until all soup is pureed. Pour back into Dutch oven and heat through, without boiling.
The left-over soup heated up very well the next day. Just be sure no to bring it to a boil because of the cream.
Beauty can be found in any town and city. I recently participated in the Kelby World Wide Photowalk in Jackson, Michigan. The group leader was Kenny Price. He procured us access to some amazing venues and led our motley crew of photographers through an afternoon of wind and rain. It was an amazing opportunity to capture Jackson from a new perspective in our photos. Here is just a sample of the photographs I took that day.
At the Michigan Theatre
The beautiful 17th floor of the County Building
On the street