Tonight’s dinner came frozen out of boxes and bags: breaded pollock; cheesy scalloped potatoes; mixed vegetables. And I am not at all embarrassed to announce that we loved it and ate our fill. Mom, Dad, and I sat at the dinner table—a family—conversing and looking forward to our after-dinner movie. I have taken pleasure in showing Mom and Dad some of my old favorites, like Nacho Libre (2006) (because it is so absurd and makes me laugh and Jack Black is brilliant) and George of the Jungle (1997) (because it is so absurd and makes me laugh and Brendan and Leslie make such a cute hopeful couple) and Chariots of Fire (1981) (because of integrity and grit and glory and love and the thrill and cheer of victory against the odds). During the Christmas holidays, we enjoyed Albert Finney’s Scrooge (1970) and George C. Scott’s A Christmas Carol (1984) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), always moved by the miracle of a changed heart. Tonight, we watched The Scarlet Pimpernel from 1982, chuckling at Percy Blakeney’s foppish façade, sad for the tragedies of the French Revolution, and happy for the happy ending. Missing Julia Child’s cookbook—I showed them Julie and Julia (2009), too—I baked a French chocolate soufflé during the movie, cutting the sugar with stevia-sweetened chocolate and mixing one part Splenda with one part sugar. I am always so pleased and relieved when my baking adventures end well. Pulling the jiggling masterpiece out of the oven, I felt quite over-the-moon giddy that the chocolate soufflé turned out perfectly, not quite a custard, not quite a cake, not quite a pudding—a pleasant satisfying piquing converging in-between of all three. And I relished the reward of Mom and Dad loving it and asking for more.
I awoke at eight—early or late?—on a Saturday, with no obligation but to live. I cooked Dad’s favorite apple-cinnamon oatmeal, with cream, for our breakfast, sweetened respectively with sugar for Mom, Splenda for Dad, and stevia extract for me. In the crock pot, I stirred the dry 15-bean soup mix, diced onion, minced garlic, ground chilis, leftover cubed ham, water, and the packet of smoke-and-ham flavored powder, and set it to simmering. Hyrum turned 20 this week. He is my sixth child, and dearly-beloved. So, I started baking a cake for his Saturday evening birthday party. And this was no hum-drum box-mix cake, but Mary Berry’s chocolate-orange mousse cake, and I hoped I could do the many-stepped recipe justice. After finishing the cake and washing, it seemed, half the kitchen’s bowls and mixing utensils, I needed to get out of the kitchen, out of the house, and out of my head. Nearby Bell Canyon beckoned. The trail’s snow was trampled down and icy, and I had forgotten my aspen-wood staff. As I slipped and tromped along, I began to ruminate, to puzzle over romance, over the panging hunger for romance, over the long absence from romance—I began to puzzle over love. A puzzle. Both uphill and downhill, the mountain trail presented many slippery slopes, and I stepped with care as I thought. An attractive woman passed me, planting her steel-tipped poles in the ice. She was smart to navigate the icy trail with poles. I was not so smart. I wanted to be there in the mountains, in the snow, in the crisp beauty—I was sincere and empty of guile—but I was un-smart in my own navigations. Always a puzzle. Hyrum and company, of course, loved the chocolate-orange mousse cake, and I was proud to have baked it. I am proud of him, no longer a little boy, but a man, a man of the best sort, a chocolate-orange mousse cake sort of a man.
The Olympic games played on the television all day Saturday. I was getting ready to bake cheesy onion bread with Gabe. He wanted to do everything: measure out the flour, dump in the salt, even pour in the Guinness. We pressed and pounded the dough and set it to proof in the lightbulb-warm oven. Gabe and I laid on the floor in front of the TV building castles with the wood blocks. As castle architect, he instructed me on exactly where to place each block, and where not to. Just then Olympic wrestling came on the TV. We watched the twisting and grunting, looked at each other, and launched into our own wrestling and tickling free for all. Needing a break, we wandered outside to find Grandpa (Dad) fertilizing and watering his plants and flowers. Gabe just had to get in on that action, though he preferred watering the landscaping boulders. When the rocks were clean, he turned the hose on us.
I wanted to make a nice dessert for Dad, and settled on a cream cheese tart. I added fresh guava puree to exotify the pie, and sweetened the filling with Splenda. I have become proficient at making French tart shells (pie crusts) from Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Dad sat at the island watching me prepare the dough. “Don’t mix it too much,” he interjected. I think you mixed it too much. It needs to be ice cold and barely blended.” I paid no heed, and placed the wax-paper-wrapped balls of dough in the fridge to chill. After a few hours, I rolled the dough out and shaped the shell in the spring-form pan. When I first starting baking, I pressed into the shell a sheet of aluminum foil and poured in a pound of dry black beans, to keep the bottom from bubbling up. The beans are a cheap but effective substitute for ceramic baking beads, which I only recently bought. Sitting in a yogurt container, they looked just like Holland mints, round and white. Dad suddenly picked up a ceramic bead and plopped it into his mouth, thinking it was a mint. Before I could articulate gentle words, I blurted, “Uh uh uh!” like one would chide a child with its hand in the cookie jar. I did not mean to treat him like an errant child, but out of instinctual fear I did what I needed to do to stop him before he crunched on the glass bead and broke a took, or swallowed the bead. He quickly spit it out, and neither of us looked at the other or said a word. I did not want to shame him anymore than I already had with my tut-tut, and he did not want to acknowledge his gaffe. We pretended nothing happened. But later, when the pie came out of the oven looking beautiful, he confessed, as if I hadn’t known, “I almost ate one of those white glass beads. I thought it was a mint!” The beads removed, and the guava cream cheese filling poured in to bake, the tart tasted wonderfully delicious.
My children pooled their resources and purchased an Aero Garden for my Father’s Day gift. Nine little cones, each with their own seeds, sat immersed in water. Upon every garden planting, I struggle to believe the seeds will sprout, but they always do. Months later I have a jungle of basil and dill and parsley. The basil plants needed pruning badly, so I cut them back and dropped the three-inch leaves into a blender with garlic, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil: pesto! This was to top the focaccia dough proofing in the oven, warmed slightly by the oven bulb. Mom and Dad and I savored munching on the aromatic, flavorful flatbread. I drove some focaccia squares over to some Brazilian bread aficionado friends, and we enjoyed a taste of pesto over conversation. Ciabatta, sourdoughs from wild yeast starter, Scottish Struan, cheese bread with Guinness, and Challah—they are all fun to make and more fun to devour. And who doesn’t enjoy the therapy of kneading out one’s frustrations while stretching those gluten fibers?
I tended my great-nephew Gabe on a recent Saturday afternoon. He is all of three years old. He lights up when he sees me because I love him and play with him. I light up when I see him because he is adorable and smart and fun and sweet, and likes being with me. On that Saturday we made my daughter Laura’s recipe for banana chocolate-chip muffins—the secret ingredient is sour cream, and these muffins are wonderfully moist and soft. Gabe and I set up our work areas on the kitchen’s center island. Given the attention span and dexterity of three-year-olds, I thought it best to give him his own bowls and measuring implements and ingredients. While I mixed the real recipe, he mixed his own concoction. The secret ingredient of Gabe’s muffins? Colored sprinkles, lots of them. And egg shells. As I was breaking eggs into my batter, he asked for an egg for his. He held the egg over his bowl, smashed it with his little hand, and dropped it into the bowl, shell and all. Mom and Dad watched smiling from the family room. I could hear a faint ringing echo as we mixed batter and talked, and I said to Mom, “Can you hear that ringing?” It turned out to be a hearing aid sitting on a table, reacting to my voice. But Gabe got off his stool and came over to hug my leg with a concerned look on his upturned face. He teared up and asked about the monster making the noise. When the hearing aid explanation meant nothing to him, I tried to reassure him by telling him confidently that there were no monsters in the house because I had eaten them all for breakfast—yum!—and that my favorite one was the chocolate monster—yum! And not one monster was left to bother him. He laughed, looked worried, and laughed again. As Gabe left with my sister and some sprinkle-topped muffins, I told him to gobble up any monsters he found at his house for his breakfast, and he smiled and said okay. Yesterday he left a crayon rainbow drawing on my pillow.