November 2009

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Beyond the Leaves

See into life – don’t just look at it.

Anne Baxter


Hi there.  It’s fruitcake season in Under a Red Roof country, but don’t all of you holler in excitement at once, we might lose a bulb!  Just kidding.  Seriously though, if you’ve ever had really good fruitcake, you’d probably be as excited as I am.  I love fruitcake.  Well, to be more precise, I love my fruitcake, as I have yet to eat any others that warranted admiration.  I remember the first time I tried it.  It was at Grandma Tess’s house.  On a beautiful tray of sweets (my family, especially my mom, did amazing things with flour, butter, and sugar when I was a kid, and not just at Christmas) were slices of cake so beautiful as to be kaleidoscopic.  I put a piece on my plate, along with susperos, fudge, Holiday Cake, Peanut Brittle, and Christmas Crescents.  I took one bite of the fruitcake and thought I might die from disgust.  It was utterly saturated with booze, maybe whiskey (my appreciation came much later), and had an awful spongy texture, not to mention the weird, otherworldly “fruits” studding it.  How could it be?  It looked so beautiful and inviting to actually be so wicked.  Thank goodness for the other sweets on my plate and a bit of eggnog to get rid of the hell in my mouth.  As you might imagine, I swore it off from that point.  It turned out that Johnny Carson was right.  I just didn’t get the joke until I ate it.

Thankfully, Martha Stewart had an article on fruitcakes and their ultimate worthiness, gosh, maybe it was ten years ago?  I don’t remember.  She described, nearly to the letter, the awful experience I’d had years earlier and why, if I made her cakes, that all would be fine.  And it was.  I’ve made these variations nearly every year since, pleasing many non-believers (including the hubster) in the process.  These are dense, moist, and rich cakes, allowed to bathe in sherry, rum, or brandy for a month’s time, before being slowly devoured, slice by slice, with a nice cup of hot tea.  They are so worth the time and care.

Sherried Fruit Cake

2 cups softened butter

2 cups sugar

4 cups flour, sifted

5 eggs

1 1/2 cups blanched slivered almonds

1 1/2 pounds candied citrus peel (look for the tubs in the produce section) I use one each of orange, lemon, and citron

zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange

1 tablespoon vanilla

3 tablespoons sherry, plus more for weekly dousing (don’t use cooking sherry!)

1 package cheesecloth

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Grease six mini-loaf pans.  Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy.  Add eggs, one at a time.  Stir in vanilla, sherry, and citrus zest.  Add flour, one cup at a time, just until blended.  Add candied citrus and almonds, mix well to combine.  Divide batter between prepared pans.  Bake until golden and a skewer comes out clean, about 1 hour fifteen minutes.  Douse each cake with 1 tablespoon of sherry and allow to cool.  Remove from pans.  As you can see in the photo, I use a large plastic tub that slides under the bed (you’ll need to store them in a cool, dark place) and line the bottom with cheesecloth, place the cakes, and then use another layer of cheesecloth over the top.  Of course, you can use any configuration you like, but this has been the most efficient for me.  Douse each cake with another tablespoon of sherry once a week for the next month.  The syringe pictured is ever so helpful in this endeavor.  The people at the pharmacy were kind enough to give it to me for free.  It keeps measurements precise and the the precious liquor from going anywhere but on the cakes, though a steady hand and a measuring spoon work pretty well, too.

Brandied or Rummied Fruitcake

2 cups softened butter

1 cup sugar

1 cup brown sugar

4 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 cups blanched slivered almonds (walnuts or pecans would work well, too)

1 pound mixed dried fruit – I use cherries, cranberries, golden raisins, blueberries, and apricots.   Whatever fruits you choose, keep them at about the same size, dicing apricots or pineapple, so as not to overwhelm the flavors of the other fruits.  As the hubster would tease me – it is all about even distribution!

1 tablespoon vanilla

3 tablespoons brandy or dark rum, plus more for dousing

The directions here are pretty much identical, just sift the baking powder and flour together, mixing the rest of the ingredients (but no zest this time) and baking, dousing, and storing as you would for the sherried version.  Hopefully you’ll give them a try.  They really are worth it.


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Good afternoon, gentle readers.  I hope this post finds you well and that you had a weekend as lovely as mine.  We had fine enough weather for a walk to the Academy to see The Informant! with Matt Damon.  I must admit that, while the movie was good, as was the pizza and popcorn, it didn’t hold a candle to the walk.  Though it was rather brisk out, and the skies were grey, it never rained, and the air smelled so wonderful – leaves, pine, and wood smoke.  As well, we found roads we had never taken before and discovered some pretty neat houses and fine landscaping in the process.

We saw the charming toadstools painted on a telephone pole just down the street from our friend Mara’s house (at which we did not stop but waved hello).  How kind and generous of the person who took the time to add this charming bit of art to our Portland streets.  I love how the world is full of delights like this, just waiting for us to notice.

When we got home, it was rather chilly, so we cozied up for our first fire of the season, reading books, listening to our collection of Bob Dylan, snuggling with cats and each other, and relishing a life that couldn’t be much more perfect.

I’m sitting in bed as I write this.  For one, if you recall, I don’t turn the heat on during the day, so it is rather cozy under the covers.  Two, I had my second chiropractic appointment yesterday, with my very first adjustment.  She made two quick pops of my spine.  My eyes were closed, and at the precise moment of the pops I saw a swirl of color, a vivid purple and yellow.  It was so dreamy and peaceful that it made me wonder why I ever feared this event.  She finished with some work on a very tenaciously stuck muscle – pushing, pulling, twisting.  It wore me out (but not the muscle – for the time being, it remains determined to stay in a tight knot), and now I am quite sore in the right upper flank of my back and contemplating a very light row in the basement after I’m finished with this post.

Which brings me to the book Still Here.  I was a very independent and conscientious kid, so much so that I was treated like an adult long before the time I actually was, giving advice, helping out.  I felt a certain measure of pride (I can do it by myself!), though sometimes a bit of anger, too, sometimes I just wanted to be a kid.  In any case, I got this sense that I with my will and determination, I could fix any problem, and, for the most part I did, and do.

Fortunately, the universe presents us with opportunities to learn, grow, and change, at the precise moment we need it, delivered via the ego crushing realizations that we are not in absolute control.  For me, it came with my surgery and, more recently, the fact that my back hurt nearly all the time, and I couldn’t move my arm upon waking in the morning.  For Ram Dass, his opportunity came when he was writing a book on aging, how to embrace it and the changes it brings, including death.  He was near completion but having a difficult time with the last chapter.  Then came a stroke (where he nearly died himself), and everything he had imagined or experienced from the outside became his own path: illuminated via paralysis, physical pain, the loss of words and the slowing of his speech, and, ultimately, the loss of his independence.   The book took on a whole new meaning because he became an “incarnation of wisdom” rather than a “wise elder.”

I really appreciated the book’s honest approach to this life and these bodies that eventually fade.  As Jim Morrison famously sang, “No one here gets out alive.”  Why deny that?  Why also deny that for most illnesses, we are never truly cured, only healed.  Our bodies and minds rarely go back to precisely what they were before.  His aphasia will likely never fade, nor will he ever play golf or be able to drive again.  I shall never have a uterus, right ovary, or fallopian tubes.   This need not be soul crushing, too.  Aging, illness, and the changing of roles take away the distractions of our ego and bring us closer to all that is precious in life. “That’s the ultimate in healing – “making whole” – because there’s no longer anything left out, including the sickness.”

As well, Ram Dass speaks of this process and how it provides the chance to receive help and love.  “The stroke created more love than I had ever seen before.  Even people who don’t like me sent me their good wishes!”  I could not agree more.  I can’t fix all that ails me.  I need the help of professionals and friends.  Thankfully, I opened myself to receiving it or would have missed out on some pretty wonderful experiences.  Shortly after my surgery, I was returning a bowl to my neighbor’s house.  She had fixed us a delicious meal to help us through.  It was one of those impossibly hot days of summer, over 100 degrees, and I made it to her house just fine, giving the bowl to her daughter, Maren.  Then, despite the fact I had only walked across the street, I nearly fainted from fatigue, and knew I needed help getting back home.  Maren held me tightly, and we walked across the street together.  In that moment, I felt so overwhelmed with love, kindness, and gratitude, as if I were being carried by grace.  This feeling was to return again and again throughout my recovery with the delivery of a meal, flowers, the washing of dishes, or a phone call.

Thanks to my own journey, and the help of this book, I see it ever more clearly.  Change (big and small) can be as natural as breathing, something to be embraced and experienced fully rather than feared.  Ride the roller coaster, but like a child – with wonder, anticipation, and exhilaration, the cherished help of friends (and good doctors), closing in on the divine.

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There is a certain majesty in simplicity which is far above all the quaintness of wit.

Alexander Pope


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