Friday, July 22, 2011

of good people (and good things) passing away

Two weeks ago Thursday, Kevin's grandfather, age 90, had a stroke. His whole right side was paralyzed. He couldn't swallow. And we all knew this was it. This last Friday he passed away after being at home for six days.

It is an odd thing, and the timing was terrible. Wayne was the kind of hilariously gruff old man who thought it ridiculous and a bit of a mean trick that he was still around to celebrate his birthday last month. He had always thought he would die early as all the other men in his family had. and he was OK with it. He did not though, and frankly, he was grumpy about it. Everyone knew already he did not want to linger on. He did not want a funeral or memorial service. At some point along the way he made it clear he did not want to be resuscitated or inhibited in any way from dying. So it was no real shock when they moved him home Saturday night and hospice did their thing, getting him ready and comfortable and the family ready and comfortable so he could die well.

All this was happening though, in the midst of Cedar's second birthday.

Ludicrous. I felt ludicrous preparing for a birthday party when half the family was dealing with all the weirdness that goes with death. But it was equally ludicrous not to. Wayne was not big on fawning. He was a man's man: Mr. Woodworking, Mr. Sports, Mr. Man of Few Words. If he could talk and I could have asked him, should I go ahead with the party, he would probably have sneered a bit and flung out his hands incredulously, as if to say, "Well, why are you asking me? Why not? I'm only dying."

So I we had the party and I made two cakes. Family came from all over to see Wayne, and stopped by to see Cedar too, some for the first time.

And you know what? It was good. It was a break for everyone involved in caring for Wayne. It was good to see the family continue on in Cedar, Wayne's only grandchild (as of now). It was good for me too. To get balloons and clean the house with my friend Eryn, to spend an obscene amount of time on cakes that no one really likes, and to learn, thankfully, that I don't have to do it like that again.

I was awake at 3am Sunday morning having a small anxiety attack about the whole ordeal and came to the conclusion that though I would finish the cakes, I had to change something in how I gave parties if I am going to continue to do this. When someone dies or is dying, you think about things. I want Cedar to remember his birthdays because they were good, because the food was good and the balloons were bright, not because his mother was in tears for no reason but stress or stayed in the kitchen the whole time to finish the cake he didn't eat.

And because it seems I start my life changes with food, I am looking for a new cake. I have decided to come back down to earth and make some sensible desserts. I spent the two days after his party last Sunday crippled with stomach pains and this foggy feeling in between my ears. I worked too hard for two cakes that were well made but still produced a shrugging reaction when eaten.

I will be giving the fussy cakes, with too many instructions, too much sugar, and way too much butter a break (I can't believe I said that out loud: "too much butter." Truth be told, it was too much, perhaps buttercream is best in cooler months? Perhaps it is best suited for cupcakes, or only should only every be in the flavor of passion fruit or raspberry, or regulated to truly exceptional occasions, and of course, to be eaten one. slice. at. a. time, one slice a day, or even, one slice a season).

I don't think my tastes are morphing so much as my needs are changing. I love a beautiful buttercream experience. I like the melting effect that happens when a coolish buttercream meets a warm mouth-- the buttercream dissolves from a firmer state at just the right rate into sweet, creamy goodness. It melds with the cake, moistening. As it melts, flavor is released. Euphoria ensues.

Sounds good, but I am craving something different now. Maybe it is the Wayne thing, but I want simpler things. Simpler cakes. Friendly cakes. Versatile cakes. I want to make things that are approachable, unassuming, and humble. I want the kind of community-minded cake that does not beg for attention, but may still get it just from its pure virtue. It doesn't need to be carefully kept.

I want fruit. And chocolate. And nuts. I want something to bring to a potluck. I want something I won't cry over if no one likes it. I want it to satisfy without giving me sugar convulsions for the next 48 hours. I want some whole grain flours. But mostly, I want to like it, and I want the people I make it for to like it too. Like a good friend, I want it to be there for my family in this strange time of transition. 'A new era' as Wayne's wife said.

I have been cooking from Heidi's book lately, and wanted to try her plum cake, which I thought would fit this description, and it did. It is barely sweet, fruit-topped, and made with whole wheat pastry flour. I will be honest, it is not the perfect, world renowned cake of glory, but it is reliable. Simple. It doesn't claim to be more than it is. It is what I keep wanting out of everything now that we've moved and I want some grounding--it's reliable, homey, and stable. Oh, and it tastes good.

I apologize, I did not even get a picture of it. I baked it for the dinner the evening of Wayne's death, and we were all a little crazy. But you probably don't even need a picture, as it looks as homely as any other homely cake. I hope you enjoy the other completely unrelated photos.

And Wayne, rest well.

Buttermilk Cake adapted from Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day

There is a slight possibility that I made this cake with normal whole wheat flour, not whole wheat pastry. I did not realize this until just now, as I was looking at Heidi's book again for the recipe and saw how light her picture of it is. This means that even without the special flour, it tasted nice, though I do recommend the whipped cream, as it is truly a barely sweet cake. On that note, do not skip the 3 tablespoons of sugar on top, it makes the cake shine.

2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 cup fine-grain natural cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled a little
grated zest of 3 lemons (I only had two, tasted subtle)
8-10 plums (I only had 4 plums, but they were large;
I don't know how anyone could fit 10 on it!)
3 tablespoons large-grain raw sugar

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and flour an 11-inch tart pan, mine was the crockery type in the above photo. Alternatively, a 9 by 13-inch Pyrex-type dish or a usual metal tart pan work too, just watch for excessive browning.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, fine sugar, and salt. Pour the buttermilk into a liquid measuring cup, mix in the eggs with a fork or small whisk, then the melted butter and lemon zest.

Add the liquid mixture to the dry mixture and stir until just combined.

Scrape batter into the prepared pan, smoothing it toward the edges. Distribute the plums evenly across the top of the batter, and finish with the large-grain sugar.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the cake has set in the middle, and knife or skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature. Heidi suggests a "floppy dollop" of maple-sweetened whipped cream. I wholly agree. Enjoy!


  1. Amanda, I thought you might like to try this. This was a part of my family as far as I can remember. It has it's roots in German/Jewish recipes that were always a part of our life. Hope you enjoy (very simple) . It was also always a summer cake when plums were in season!

    Plum Kuchen

    2 cups flour
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    pinch of salt
    zest of 3 lemons
    1/2 lb butter, room temperature
    1 1/4 cup sugar (reserve 1/4 cup)
    5 eggs
    1 Tablespoon vanilla
    1 cup breadcrumbs
    3 lbs plumbs
    Total 1 9
    20 mins
    30 mins
    50 mins

    Preheat oven to 350F degrees.

    Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and lemon zest in a medium bowl.

    In a separate large bowl cream the butter and one cup of the sugar, either by hand or with an electric mixer. Then add the eggs one at a time, and add all the dry ingredients a little bit at a time. Add the vanilla and mix thoroughly.

    When the cake batter is smooth, pour it into a 9"x12" glass baking dish. Sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs, then place the plum halves on top of the batter. I place them to cover the whole top of the cake. Breadcrumbs can help keep the plums from sinking into the cake. But don't fret if your plums fall. If this happens to you, as it often does to me, the cake will still be delicious!

    Sprinkle cake with the reserved 1/4 cup of sugar. Bake for 30 minutes or until the top is golden brown and a knife comes out clean.

  2. Thanks Ed! Will try this one. I do recall plum cake being in pretty much every bakery when I was there years ago. Always looked so good!