5/28/2010

The Strawberry Cake Story

I always hesitate to tell this story, it just sounds too strange and unbelievable, but a few folks asked me to. My birthday's over,  and I'm just now making THE strawberry cake. Our Friday night dinner group consists of 11 people, out of those, 3 have birthdays in late May. So tonight we're going out for dinner at Devito's Restaurant and Trout Farm and since I didn't make myself my favorite strawberry cake on my birthday, this will be the cake we 3 who have birthdays this week and last, will share.

The actual and real, I swear, story of this cake, follows here. Believe it, because it's true, but if you don't choose to believe, that's ok, I understand. It all started my first year in the Air Force, 1967. I'd been away at college for 2 years, the Army and the Vietnam war were breathing down my neck. I chose the Medical Corps in the Air Force and that May was my first birthday away from home. Before, even while in college, I always returned home for my birthday, where my mother made my favorite of all cakes - strawberry. I'm guessing the recipe had come from one of the women's magazines my mother read, because it is wholly a 50's style cake. There is nothing healthy or wholesome in it.

Knowing I was not getting to come home for my birthday, I planned ahead, asking my mother to write mail the recipe to me. I attended church off-base, in town each Sunday. There was a group of college students and Airmen who met for study in the Church annex and someone always brought food to go with coffee. I thought sharing my favorite cake would be a great way to celebrate.

I had a desk in my barracks room which I shared with a roommate. I stored my mother's strawberry cake recipe in my one drawer. I had asked Connie, one of the girls in our Sunday group if I could come to her house to make the cake on Saturday and we could store it in the annex's refrigerator until Sunday. She agreed and I bought the necessary ingredients on Friday.

Saturday morning I was excited to get the cake project underway. I had the ingredients already in my vehicle, but when I opened the desk drawer, the cake recipe was nowhere to be found. I looked and looked, turning everything upside down, asked my roommate, looked in the groceries, in my pockets, all to no avail. The recipe was lost. Food for me, is always a connection to emotion, to nostalgia, to good memories, and I was miserable. I wanted that cake.

It was pouring down rain as I drove to Connie's house, very sad. I really wanted to taste that cake badly, and I really wanted to share it with my friends. I didn't start crying like a baby, but I darned well felt like it. I parked near Connie's house, thinking I would just take the ingredients inside and leave them for her family as I couldn't do anything with frozen strawberries, eggs, oil, etc.

When I stepped out of my truck, the wind was blowing the rain so hard it immediately soaked my shirt and the paper grocery bags. I walked toward the house with my head down to avoid as much of the blowing rain as I could. Looking down to avoid stepping in puddles on the sidewalk, I saw a small piece of soggy paper. I nearly didn't stop, but I bent down and picked it up out of curiosity. It couldn't be. How was this possible? It was A strawberry cake recipe! Not the one my mother had typed out for me, this one was in a handwriting I didn't recognized. I stood there, dumbfounded. I tried to figure out how this strange coincidence could be. The water running down my back, through my underwear and jeans and down my legs, brought me back to reality. I ran on to Connie's house, losing the box of frozen strawberries out of the now disintegrated grocery bag.

Indoors, Connie handed me a towel and helped me retrieve the groceries. As we spread everything out on the kitchen counter, I told her my story of the disappearing recipe and the incredible appearance of the new one I held in my hand. She nodded and smiled, but obviously didn't believe me. I couldn't blame her, had I not witnessed it myself, I wouldn't have believed it, either.

We made the cake. The ingredients were similar to my mom's recipe, but slightly different. Egg whites instead of whole eggs, for instance. Sliced fresh strawberries instead of frozen. But the cake was baked and appeared all right. We let it cool, iced it, then drove to the church and put it in the refrigerator for morning. But wait, this isn't the end of the story!

Next day when we arrived early to make coffee, Connie went to get the cake. She came back and said the cake wasn't there. I looked in the refrigerator, too. We looked in the church's big walk-in refrigerator, asked the associate pastor. Nothing. As the coffee perked Connie excused herself and went to the lady's bathroom. She came back carrying a wastebasket. In it, was my cake, still intact except for one missing piece.

We had about 30 people in our group and as they arrived I told them about the cake and how disappointed I was in not getting to share it with them. (And how I really wanted to have some myself). It took weeks for the mystery to be unraveled, but in the end, a girl I had dated one time (and not again because she was absolutely crackers) was jealous that I'd gone to Connie's to make the cake. She discovered the cake in the church refrigerator, ate a piece, cried, and dumped the rest in the trashcan, as revenge! But wait, this also isn't the end of the story!

Every year when I get ready to make mom's strawberry cake, the recipe is no where to be found. I keep it in a notebook of recipes, I even check during the winter, but when my birthday rolls around, it's nowhere to be seen. I have a special pocket for it in my file, I always put the recipe there when I find it again, but when I make the cake, I wind up using the recipe I found on the sidewalk. So one of my reasons for waiting a week to make the cake, was to see if the right recipe would stay where I put it last year. It was where it was supposed to be.  I used Mom's recipe this year. In the photo you can see both hers and the one I found on the sidewalk in the rain in 1967.

Because several people asked, here's Mom's recipe. It may not sound like it, but is so incredibly good that I would probably eat the whole thing, which is why I'm sharing it with our dinner group tonight, to save me from myself. As I warned earlier, it's a typical 1950s recipe, there is absolutely nothing healthy in this except for the strawberries.

Strawberry Cake

1 box white cake mix
1 small box strawberry Jell-O (dry)
Scant cup cooking oil
4 egg whites
1/2 cup water

Mix thoroughly with electric mixer or by hand. Then add 1 box (about a cup) of thawed, frozen strawberries, mixing by hand to combine. Pour into oiled, floured 9 x 13 baking pan and bake at 325 degrees F. until a knife inserted into center comes out clean.

Icing
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter, combined with 1/2 cup formerly frozen strawberries and 2 cups powdered sugar, mixing well. Spread on cooled cake. (I use half cream cheese, half butter instead of all butter).

Josh picked another 3 gallons, bringing the total up to a little over 6 gallons of cherries off of the one, dwarf Montmorency cherry tree. He bought a new cherry pitter, and it works like a charm. It's not electric or anything automatic, but it does make this job a whole lot easier. He's freezing the cherries in pie-sized batches (4 cups). I made a pie a couple of days ago out of the first picking. It's great to have a winter's supply of good pie cherries.

I'm really glad my birthday comes during strawberry (and cherry) season. Happy Gardening!

5/22/2010

Bees Arrive at Long Creek Herb Farm

It's not that I don't have enough stories and photos to post more often, it's that I can't find enough waking hours in the day to do so. Therefore you have to endure these long posts I have. But it's spring, life is moving along at a rapid pace. My birthday is tomorrow (I'll be 39....ok, 49, I'm lieing, of course). The last week's garage sale, that got rained on, continued one more day this week. Whew, glad we got that over with. Furniture, oriental carpets, collectibles, 4 camera tripods, dishes, all went. It's what I asked for, for my birthday. Now...to shop for furniture.

Barbara is enjoying her Earth Boxes. People kept asking me if I had an opinion about Earth Boxes and I had to admit each time, I had no idea what an EB was. I ordered 2 for my mother-in-law, Barbara, for Mother's Day and now I am learning about Earth Boxes from her project. Before these 2 were even filled with soil, Barbara was planning her list of seed she wanted to try and I barely had the soil in the boxes before she had everything planted. I was tickled that she was excited! Parked on the deck on deck benches, they are the perfect height to tend, and her plants are growing rapidly. There will be more news as the summer goes along of Barbara's project, for now, she has basil and a few ripening strawberries, green beans and tomatoes are coming along, some chives, too.

The cherries are ready to be picked and that's the project for this evening. Adam and Josh put a net over the tree which only slows the birds and squirrels a tiny bit. Like it or not, we'll share with the wildlife, but hopefully pick enough for a pie or two and lots for the freezer.

The big event of the day was the arrival of Matthew with bees. Josh and I have kicked around the idea of bees for years but it takes some commitment to do bees justice. Already having goats, chickens, a few guineas, a business, a garden that produces more than we can eat, taking on bees always got put aside. Matthew, whose family owns the Amish Country Store in Branson, (they sell my books and Nail Fungus Soak) farms out his bee hives in various areas, then collects and sells the honey. Because we are mostly organic and have plenty for bees to graze on, he brought bees to live here for the season. Molly, our Jack Russell, immediately sensed the boxes had something mysterious in them and not knowing better, got a couple of stings and fled the area, leaving the project to Matthew. Pollination of everything should be outstanding this year. We have lots of wild bees as well as bumble bees, but having some docile Italian bees on the property will benefit the garden greatly and be fun to see how Matthew handles them.

Adam and I have been working on getting the garden up and going all month. With 5 inches of rain last week (much of it on garage sale weekend) and another inch or moisture this week, it's been a challenge to get things planted, mulched and happily growing. This is a view from the deck, of a little corner of the garden. And here's an interesting new dianthus I'm enjoying this year. I forget the name, but it is a constant inspiration for little bouquets for the breakfast table.

And has the flavor and fragrance to make some really good sorbets for summer evenings! Happy gardening.

5/16/2010

Ketchup and Catch-Up

I wanted to start today's posting with the photo I took in the National Mustard Museum, which I wrote about 3 weeks ago, of a sign which read, "Eating Ketchup is believed to cause childhood stupidity (be safe, eat more mustard)" But I evidently sent it to the trash. So just imagine it here. Today's posting is catch-up (or ketchup, if you want), several things I would have posted this week had we not been getting ready for the MEGA GARAGE Sale. We filled one 14 ft. U-Haul truck, plus 3 stuffed full pick-ups and drove it via caravan, to our friends, Neil  and Sarah's house in Forsyth, MO. They have good traffic past their house, while we have maybe 2 cars a day. The sale went well and the living room and storage building are basically empty. (What I wanted for my birthday, coming up next weekend, was a garage sale, or you can read it another way, I wanted some new furniture and the garage sale was the means to get it). So, on to the catching-up.

I met Brian Paffin at the Carmel-Indianapolis "Dilly of a Day" herb day and was immediately impressed by his candles he had for sale. Candles are candles, right? Not exactly. His are made of soy oil, so no smoke, but the better aspect, is the fragrances he uses. You can read more about his tantalizing candles on his website, Herbal Art website. I bought a candle with the scent of Dirt (really - it smells like fresh plowed garden), and 2 Peach Sangria candles. They're so good I wonder if people try to eat them. His products include soaps, body products, wedding gifts, fund raising products and a lot more. You'll be pleasantly surprised at his very creative, unusual, high quality products.

We had a wonderful visitor in the garden guesthouse last week. Pat Crocker, of Riversong Herbals in Ontario, who's best known for her books, The Juicing Bible and the The Smoothies Bible, stopped by for a visit. She was on her way back home in Canada from having been the keynote speaker at the Ozark Folk Center's annual Spring Herb Extravaganza. We know Pat through the International Herb Association and Garden Writers of America and always look forward to getting to spend time with her. Her book, The Juicing Bible won 'Best in the World' in the nutrition category in Perigueux, France, in 2000! We talked about the International Herb Assoc.'s annual conference in Collinsville, IL, in July, where she and I will be 2 of the 4 hosts for what's called, "hosted dinners." It's a great way for conference attendees to get to visit over dinner about a specific  subject, sort of like a mini-workshop, with food, in small groups. 

And next on my list of catch-up, is this wonderful book from Jennifer Vasich, The Lavender Gourmet, from Moose Run Publications. I didn't count the recipes, but there are 325 pages of them. Here are some examples of the taste-tempting recipes Jennifer has: Lavender Mint Brownies,  Vanilla Lavender Hot Chocolate, Raspberry Lavender Sorbet, Lavender Chicken with Lemon Butter Sauce, Southwest Chicken Lavender Enchiladas, Basil & Lavender  Pesto, Hibiscus Lavender Lemonade. I could go on, but the best compliment I can give this book, is, I wish I had written it. Jennifer created a book that will likely change the way you think about lavender.

My lavender isn't blooming yet, but the garden looks better every day. Even with nearly 5 inches of rain this week (including during the garage sale), the garden is coming alive. Adam, who I've written about several times, is here for another couple of weeks, and has done wonders in the garden. Nearly all the beds are fully planted, most are mulched and now we're working on expanding the garden to the south to make room for a row of grapes. Yes, I know, the garden is already more than we can take care of without help, but, it's grapes and I found some 3 year old plants in 5 gallon buckets, blooming and ready to give us grapes. 


Our irises have been beaten hard by the pounding rains, but still manage to bloom vigorously. This one is 'Betty Wold,' simply because the late Betty Wold is the one who gave it to me 20 years ago. Many of the plants in my non-edible garden are named for who they came from, rather than a distant Latin name. So when the Betty Wolds are in bloom, I stop and smell them every day, trying to memorize the fragrance for later. Much like the way different colored tulips have different smells, so do iris. These deep purple Betty Wolds are the most fragrant of all, so delicious you want to spread some on buttered bread (IF they were edible). Or stuff a pillow with the flowers and take a nap. Thank you, Betty, I think of our friendship every spring.

And because it's Sunday and the rhubarb is ready, I made a strawberry-rhubarb pie. I think it turned out pretty well, although the taste will be the real test. This is a recipe a friend gave me many years ago, simple, quick, and my favorite. It's 4 cups of cut up rhubarb (or 3 cups rhubarb, 1 cup sliced strawberries), 1 1/3 cups of sugar (I used part non-sugar sweetener), 6 tablespoons flour and a few dots of butter. Mixed together, poured into a pie shell and topped with another pie crust, it's baked at 400 degrees F. for 10 minutes, then baked for another 40-45 minutes at 375 degrees F. It will be the top-off to one of our favorite Sunday dinners tonight: meatloaf, baked beans, spring salad, and....rhubarb pie. It is the best reason for growing rhubarb!


Happy gardening.

5/09/2010

Really, a French castle in the Ozarks!

The French seemingly have come back to renig on the deal they made with Thomas Jefferson in 1803. Well, not really, the Louisiana Purchase transferred ownership of a good portion of Central and South-Eastern United States from France to the U.S. and this new enterprise isn't meant as a return to the days of old, not that way, at least. But it is significant that a trio of French people are erecting a 1300s vintage French castle right here in the Ozarks, on land that was once part of the French colonies.

The first question that comes to mind would be, "Why?" and the answer to that is as complicated as the enterprise itself. (I think the short answer is, "because we can.") I've been waiting to tell this story for nearly 9 months, ever since I first had a tour of the site late last summer. Back then, the groundwork was just beginning, the land had been cleared and the developers didn't want any information released until the project was well underway. So on April 30th, there was a big unveiling of the project. Miss Arkansas came in 4 inch high heels (one wonders...didn't she know it was a construction site??) and sang the national anthem. There were lots of media from far and wide (read the U.S.A. Today story). The Arkansas Director of Tourism came, letters were read from governors, lots of tourism development types came, bus tour companies, etc. It was a big, impressive event.

The fortress is the brainchild of our friends Jean-Marc and Solange Mirat who made a visit back to Gu├ędelon, France in 2008. Quite by accident they met Michel Guyot who was in the process of building a similar castle from the ground up in Burgundy. His castle is scheduled to be completed in 2022. The Mirats made a deal to partner with Guyot to build a castle on the couple’s Arkansas property, near Lead Hill, Arkansas.

This is an interactive project and visitors are encouraged to see and try out weaving, carving and other techniques that were used in the 1300s. The fortress-castle is being built using stone and wood from the property, using techniques authentic to the time period. Stone masons cut and fit the stones, then mix mortar from slaked lime, sand and water and cement the stones in place. (The project has 2 architects and 2 engineers whose jobs it is to ensure authenticity and stability of the structures).

The castle project will take an anticipated 20 years to complete and it's not the completion that's the goal, it is the teaching of the process, the step by step progress, that is the focus. In essence, once it's built, the project is over (they even threatened, whimsically, of tearing it down and starting over again). The attraction is the methods and construction, not the finished product that will bring groups of all ages to tour the progressive construction project. (There is also an authentic, wooden, 1000 a.d. vintage fortress erected on the site, as well, showing the techniques and materials used in the centuries before the 1300s fortress project).

There's a garden, which is my main interest, made of wattle beds, a project that will grow as the main construction grows. There are stone cutters, a squirrel-cage lever system where a worker 'walks" inside the cage, which pulls a rope and raises stones to be set as the 4 ft wide walls go up, along with woodworkers, weavers, spinners, timber cutters and more. I was impressed on the Media Day how well versed the workers were in interpreting their own parts in the project.

Adam, our WWOOFer of 2 seasons ago (more about him here), arrived last week to help get the garden here underway. He's been in the Pacific Northwest working on a production organic farm. With his great help, we have turned the garden from empty beds into fluffed-up, mulched and planted garden. His enthusiasm and interest is always an inspiration. He'll be heading off on another adventure in a few weeks.

We got tickets to see Michael Feldman's Whad'Ya Know? show on Saturday in Springfield. We're long time fans of the show and even though this is Feldman's 4th visit to Springfield, this was the first broadcast we had attended. My editor, Fred Pfister, from The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine was the guest interviewee and Feldman gave lots of good publicity for The Mountaineer. (I've been writing my Ozarks Herbalist column for The Mountaineer since 1992 when I ceased publication of my Ozarks Herbalist newsletter). 

And, the way things sometimes go in circles, 2 of the guests on the show were from the French castle. Billy Williams, one of the stone masons, had Feldman try out his stone cutting skills. Accompanying Williams was Julie Sonveau, the PR director for the castle, explaining the project. Check the castle's website for more information about visiting. I think Feldman and his What'dya Know? staff were touring the castle after the nationally-broadcast radio show was finished.

Now, back to work in the garden, where our castle may be smaller but just as fulfilling.