Strawberry Cake, Lemon Balm Pie

I'm glad my birthday is in the springtime. It's my favorite time of year, with plants in bloom, birds nesting, corn and beans peeking up through the soil. Springtime just feels like time for celebrating being alive. And eating strawberries! I made my annual strawberry cake yesterday to share with our Friday night dinner group. You don't have to believe the following story of the birthday cake, but it is absolutely, completely true.

Many years ago when I was newly in the Air Force and my first birthday that far away from home, I asked my mom in advance for her recipe of the cake she always made for me. It's not out of the ordinary, probably came from Better Homes & Gardens or one of the women's magazines back in the early '60s. But it has always been my favorite cake and I wanted to make it especially because I was stationed in Texas and not able to go home for the occasion.

I had joined a college-age Sunday school group in Wichita Falls and every Sunday drove from Shepherd Air Force Base and spent the day with the group, discussing, barbecuing, enjoying friends' company. I asked one of the girls in the group if I could come over on the Saturday of my birthday weekend and make my mom's strawberry cake. Mom had sent the recipe and I filed it away in my desk in the barracks until I needed it.

On the Saturday I was to go to the friend's house to bake the cake, the recipe was no where to be found. I tore my desk and locker apart but the recipe was not there. Dejected, I drove into town, disappointed that I didn't have the recipe. I had the ingredients, but not the recipe to put them together.

When I arrived at the girl's house, it was pouring down rain, not a drizzle but a drencher, which further served to dampen my spirits. I missed home, I wanted my birthday cake and I wanted to share it with my Sunday school friends. It's embarrassing now, looking back, but at age 20, in the Vietnam war years, away from home, I wanted the taste of something familiar.

I got out of my car, ready to give up. I had a grocery bag of ingredients in one hand - cake mix, strawberries, oil, everything but the recipe. I locked the car and walked a few steps, really blue over losing Mom's recipe. And I'd promised the group a cake.

Because of the rain I was looking down to shade the rain from my face and to dodge puddles. After a few steps, I saw a piece of paper laying on the sidewalk, stuck to the concrete in the pouring rain. I bent down and couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was a 3 x 5 notecard with handwriting I didn't recognize, for a strawberry cake recipe! I picked it up and went to the door where my friend let me in. I told her the story and she, rightly, didn't believe me.

We baked the cake from the foreign recipe, and let it cool, me expressing my amazement at the strange coincidence, my friend obviously thinking I was making it up. We iced the cake with strawberry icing and took it to church for sharing the following day, putting it in the Anex kitchen with a note that it was for the college group. But upon arriving at church a little early, neither my friend nor I could find the cake anywhere. It had completely disappeared. By the time the entire group had assembled, someone found the cake in the women's bathroom, in the trash, with one piece missing. Eventually a girl we all called, "And/Or" because she could never make a decision, confessed to trashing my cake. She was jealous I had chosen someone else's house to make the cake in. (And/Or and I had dated just once and trashing my birthday cake was definitely not the way to get asked out again). So you see, I have to make the cake every year, it has a history. And the 2 recipes? I kept the one found on the sidewalk and later found Mom's recipe in the envelope she'd sent it in. Both are filed away in my recipe collection and each May I get them out and recount the story and make the cake using Mom's recipe.

The gazebo is finished! Well, almost. It has to be painted, but the construction is done and I'm very pleased. George deemed it, "Chi-Zarks" which is what we call just about everything he and I have built on the farm over the years. Chinese styled Ozarks architecture. Or Ozarks styled Chinese. The new gazebo is strong enough to hold up a lot of vines. I have a very large, thornless climbing rose that came from an old estate in Georgia and had been passed down through multiple generations. It will climb 20 feet or more. I have another yellow thornless rose from Mississippi, that was growing on the old gazebo and had to be chopped back for construction, so it will be up and climbing again soon.

Lots of roses are in bloom in the garden, part of what makes this season for my birthday so fragrant and enjoyable. In the same family of the rose and apple, are blackberries, which are also in bloom now. I grow several varieties of thornless blackberries, new releases from the Univ. of Arkansas, including Navajo, Arapaho and Ouachita, Cherokee and Comanche. Notice the two colors of blackberry blossoms, one pink, the other white.

WWOOFer Paul left us this week, off on his next adventure through S. Carolina, up to Long Island to see his G'ma, over to Boston to pick up his girlfriend, then the two of them are heading to Wayne, Maine for an anthropology project that Katie is working on. We were glad to get to know Paul and grateful for all his nice work in the garden. I can't help but wonder what he could have accomplished had it not rained for 3 of the weeks he was here. One of the things he did was teach himself to bake pies and for one whole week he baked a pie nearly every day. I suggested he might make an herb pie and so the last pie he made for us before heading east was a lemon balm chess pie. He included lemon balm, lemongrass and lemon thyme and it was an outstanding pie! And to go with it, he made a lemon sorbet to serve on the side. I think a chef's apron may be in Paul's future somehow.

And Squeak, our cat, left us a present, too. She's a hunter and occasionally leaves us an offering on the doorstep as cats often do - to pay their rent some say. Squeak left us a packrat, splayed out on the welcome mat. I'm sure she believes she has provided well for us. I turned around to thank her where she was laying on the porch loveseat (peeking through barely open eyelids, to see if I approved). When I turned back to the "present" it was gone and our Jack Russell was carrying it around as if she had just caught the rat herself.

So it's been a productive week at the farm. Birthday cake, Lemon balm Pie, a gazebo completed, a packrat offering, roses in bloom and lots of things coming up in the garden. I'm thankful for it all. Happy gardening!


Thunderbirds Come to Long Creek Herb Farm

Ok, ok, so they didn't LAND in the garden. But the big air show at the brand new Branson Airport (the first ever, privately owned, public airport in the US) was a spectacular 2 1/2 day event. We're just 15 miles away from the new airport and the Air Force Thunderbirds practiced for 2 days before the show. All of us in the garden got a decent view as the jets made their turn-arounds at 800 mph, over the Long Creek arm of Table Rock Lake. Standing in our bell tower above the Herb Shop, as well as in the garden, we were treated to some of the acrobatics and stunts the big jets were to perform the following day. Pretty cool. Having spent 4 years in the Air Force myself, and having been stationed just yards from the landing strip at Shepherd Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, I got to watch these precision pilots do touch and go maneuvers from the Medical Service School where I was stationed. You just never know who or what is going to turn up in the garden.

The gazebo is down completely and this is all that's left. Paul and George hauled the left overs and made a big burn pile. Farewell old gazebo. Three weddings have been planned over the years in the old gazebo. Two were rained out completely and performed on the Herb Shop porch, the third one was cancelled, so no weddings were ever held in that one. The new gazebo is beginning to take shape. It's evolving into an Ozarks-Chinese design to match the other Asian-Ozarks structures around the garden. The new one will be stronger and more refined and once it's covered with vines, will blend into the garden nicely. Our good friend, George Hudson, does outstanding work, he's an amazing craftsman and cabinet builder.

Our fringe tree is in bloom this week. Friends in Arkansas call it, "Granddaddy Gray Beard" but in much of the rest of the country it's known as, "Old man's beard." Or just plain fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). George Washington had one at Mt. Vernon in Virginia and it will grow most anywhere in the East and Midwest into the South. Usually reaching 15 or 20 feet, Washington's has grown to 32 feet tall and 17 inches in trunk diameter. More often, in the woods, it's a 12-15 ft. tall tree. Besides the frilly white flowers the leaves turn brilliant yellow to orange in the fall of the year.

Rhubarb is in season and WWOOFer Paul has been practicing making pies. So far this week he's made my Lemon Balm Cake, a cherry pie from frozen last year's cherries, a strawberry-rhubarb pie and today, a rhubarb custard pie. He said friends in Asheville, NC where he's from, have an annual pie party in which about 300 people attend, all bringing pies and the guests vote on the best pies. I think he's practicing for his entry in August. Shown here with the rhubarb-custard pie, left to right, is Josh, Paul & Pie, and Barbara Young, Josh's mother. The pie passed with flying colors, some in the group even having seconds!

In bloom just in time for Mother's Day last weekend was my mother's rose. It's a very old rose, I don't know the name but is highly fragrant and an excellent rose for making rose whipped cream, putting petals in salads, etc. (Lots more rose recipes in my book, How to Eat a Rose in my Books section).

Here's the Rhubarb Custard Pie recipe, given to Josh by Jospehine, Christmas, '81:

2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sugar
2 T. flour
1/3 cup heavy cream or evap. milk
1 to 1 1/2 cups diced rhubarb

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Mix eggs, sugar, flour and cream or milk. Fill pie shell with diced rhubarb and cover with batter. Bake for 10 minutes then lower temperature to 350 degrees F. for 30 minutes more or until knife inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool for an hour or more before serving (we didn't wait...waiting for a pie to cool is highly over-rated!)

Friends sent a link to this YouTube video of our late friend, Madalene Hill and her daughter, Gwen Barclay, walking around the magnificent garden at Festival Hill that I mentioned some time back after Madalene passed away. Here's the link to the video, check it out because it's a remarkable garden and you get a glimpse of what a fascinating lady she was. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItBpziCjH6Y


Gazebos & Garden Festivals

Notice the gazebo at the top of this header page? It's history as of today. George and I built it probably 17 years ago. Actually he built it, I just gathered the cedar saplings. Two weddings had been planned there, both rained out. Over time it has rotted away and was only held up by an Asian bittersweet, silver lace vine and antique thornless rose from a mansion south of the Mason-Dixon line. Shown here is some of the destruction, or, progress. That's Paul Battle, our very kind WWOOFer from N. Carolina on the left, and George Hudson, resident builder, on the right. You'll likely not see a picture of George from the front, he manages to hide his face and won't pose for a photo. They're just starting to tear the old structure down.

Paul hauled away the materials as it was cut up. He'd earlier cut back the rose, bittersweet and other vines so they wouldn't be trampled by the work. An earlier intern, Peter, who came from Hungary a few years back, built the stone floor in the gazebo. It has little hand made ceramic herb labels between the rocks in the concrete. Peter spent days laying the rock and concreting them together as one of his summer's projects.

The gazebo went up soon after I wrote the Making Bentwood Trellises, Gates, Fences & Arbors book. After the book came out there were several magazines here doing stories on bentwood projects and I think the garden appeared in just about every garden magazine in the next few years. The gazebo figured prominently in the photos and we got lots of requests for plans for the gazebo (which wasn't in the book, and still is not). What I always warned people about was, it took lots, lots more materials to build with than most people can find available. It was built out of native cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Speaking of which, with all of our rains the past ten days, the cedar apples are blooming. They appear as big, orange globs of jelly hanging on the cedar trees. Up close you see they have structure and shape, and even slight beauty (click to enlarge the photo). They are the alternate host of the cedar apple rust that affects apple crops, producing spotting and "rust" on the apples.

The Baker Creek Seed Spring Festival was WET. Too bad it had to rain so much, before and during the festival. Even with the rains, several thousand people came anyway. Vendors had wet feet, visitors were soaked, but for the most part, people were in good spirits and buying plants and seed. The line inside the seed store stretched for an hour or more to pay for the seed. Bakerville is experiencing growing pains. It's amazing to see what this young man, Jeremiath Gettle, has accomplished in just 1o years, with help from his community and family. But it is his vision. Starting at age 17, ten years ago, Jere began packaging seed in his bedroom and mailing them out to a small customer base. In that short time his business has grown to be an increasing threat on some of the larger, established seed companies. He has a great dedication to heirloom seed. Watch a video of him describing what he does here. And you can also watch some of the festival here.

Selling only heirloom seed, from plants you can save your own seed from year to year, Jere has grown his business to shipping thousands of seed orders a day. He's built a town square in his front yard to look like an old-time Ozarks town, complete with seed store, apothecary, herb garden, stone oven bakery, restaurant and more. There are several buildings around the new "old" town where musicians play during the festival. A large speaker's building holds a couple of hundred people and lectures go on all day a variety of gardening subjects. This year there were 3 small stages for musicians and so you found music being played everywhere you went.

Large tents housed vendors and many vendors brought their own tents. It's my favorite place to find plants and seed in the springtime and we shopped in spite of the rain. One of my favorite bands played 6 times over the two day event. My friend, Kathryn Compton and her Checkered Past Band (you can download their music or listen on this link) were in the rooms next to us in the motel in Seymour, MO the night before so we were treated to hearing them practice, then hearing the performances the following day, too. Our friends, David & Donna, from Fayetteville, AR came and we had a short but great visit. It was their first time to attend the Festival and we may be able to get them back in good weather for the Fall Festival. Baker Creek's festivals are some of the most diverse gatherings of anywhere I know of in the Ozarks. Our friends, Rich and Becky, from Long Island, NY, by way of Springfield, MO, said they were totally amazed to see such complete diversity in the Ozarks.

I chose not to take pictures of the parking lot with hundreds of cars stuck in the mud, nor the line that stretched a mile and took 45 minutes or longer just to get to the gate to the parking lot. People were wet and miserable, parking volunteers were working hard directing, helping, driving tractors to pull stuck vehicles. Eventually they closed the parking lots completely because the newly built and graveled roads just sunk into the mud. Everyone felt bad for the Baker Creek folks who had worked so hard to put together a wonderful festival and who had to be disappointed at the continuous rains. But in spite of the little inconveniences, it was a great festival and grows bigger every year. I always look forward to going, for the music, the fun, the plants, seeing friends, sometimes speaking and always having a good time.

When the rains let up, Paul and I will get more garden planted. Yesterday we planted about 2 dozen heirloom tomatoes, Paul planted Chinese red noodle beans, my favorite yard long beans from Baker Creek Seed as well as planting several medicinal plants and herbs. Finally, after a mild but seemingly long winter, it's garden time!


Home Again

Several folks have asked where I am and why there are no posts. I am (choose a word): overwhelmed; behind; deluged; inundated; submerged; swamped; overrun. The trip to LaPorte, IN, as well as Otis, IN and Michigan City area was great. The nice folks of the LaPorte Master Gardeners were wonderful hosts. Adi & Bert Veendendaal were so kind to open their home to me. Where else but there, could I have experienced a pizza topped with sauerkraut, Canadian bacon and pineapple (you can laugh, but it was very very good!)

Nora Akins who made all the argangements for getting me there was a sweetheart and a pleasure to meet. A long time fan of my Down to Earth columns, Marcy Dailey, wrote a poem for the introduction she gave before my Bentwood Trellis demonstration that is without a doubt, the best introduction I have ever been given. It was humbling and exciting, too, knowing Marcy knew the stories in my Herb Companion columns better than even I did.

Highlights of the trip included a trip to the International Friendship Gardens, a visit to Fernwood Gardens, dinner out with Mr. & Mrs. Russ Klosinski, the Veendendalls, Marcy and Nora at a Lebanese restaurant. And a very kind visit to Mike and Marcy's own gardens where an amazing amount of perennials, shrubs and wildflowers grow and where Marcy hosts crafts festivals 3 times a year.

As I traveled northward (a journey listed on Mapquest as 11 hours and 56 minutes and which I turned into 16 hours plus and 1,500 miles of driving...there were yard sales along the way and woods to walk in and wild plants to photograph) it was fun to see spring just beginning. The morel season was just starting in northern Indiana; a roadside stand was offering them for sale and someone surmised that because the price had been $30 a pound last year it was likely closer to $50 per pound this year. Redbuds were just opening, dogwoods were barely visible, and I got to experience spring all over again.

Photos will follow, and stories about the gardens I visited. I'm still processing the photos I took. Currently in our garden, we have rain. The maple tree outside my upstairs window has 4 inch leaves on it and they were only little green nubbins last week. Our new WWOOFer, Paul Battle arrived this past Tuesday from North Carolina to see what he can learn from me about medicinal herbs and we're glad to have his help in the garden. When the rains stop, he and I will make some progress in the garden. The big Baker Creek Spring Festival is coming up this weekend at the new Bakertown near Mansfield. With people coming from many states, we're all hoping the rains let up. If you're withing driving distance of Bakertown, and like gardening, you should check out the Festival.

And for all you who have been asking: the six (or 3) plants you can't live without on your dessert island survey will be posted soon, I promise. Yes, I still have Bhut jalokia pepper seeds for sale, no I don't have any papalo seed available. When you post a comment, if you will include your email address, I will reply directly to your questions. But the way the comments are posted, I never have a "reply-to" address unless you type one in. Oh, there was a comment about my having listed 24 books that I've written somewhere and 26 elsewhere and the comment was, "just which is it?" Two books have gone out of print, thus the lower number. And one last question regarding locating curry tree: the email address for the source for curry tree is posted on my webpage: just go to http://www.Longcreekherbs.com and click on the button, "Looking for Plants?" and you'll see the sources I list for plants and seed.

More to come, happy gardening and if you need rain, we could share some with you.