Last weekend I was privileged to join a special group of kids to celebrate my nephew’s ninth birthday, Italian soccer style. My sister put together a delicious pasta bar and festive cupcakes to match the theme. The evening ended with backyard soccer and ice cream cones! I became an aunt the morning he was born, and my heart has been growing bigger every day since. I wish so many things for him, including a life that continues to be filled with love and laughter.
On a Sunday afternoon visit to a rural one room schoolhouse, on the opposite end of the county from where my great-grandmother taught a century ago, I thought about how we learn, where we learn, and why we learn. I also thought about how fortunate I was/still am to be surrounded by a family of public educators. That legacy of a lifelong love of learning is not something I take lightly.
I grew up in a small house in the country. This time of year I could see flickering constellations of yellow fireflies hovering over the bean fields from my bedroom window at night. Behind our property, the horizon line was divided by a corn field, then woods. Our house sat sandwiched between these two typical Indiana crops along with a yard that was big enough for kickball games, sprinkler races, and our very own strawberry patch. It was in that backyard patch where you could find me and my big sister squatting, weeding, and snacking on sun-warmed strawberries on summer afternoons.
Almost every night for dinner my mom made fresh pie or fruit salad that included the strawberries that survived the journey from the backyard into the house. When we reached a surplus of berries, especially those blood red, almost-over-ripened, starting-to-get-mushy ones, my mom would make jam. I remember the heat from the strawberries stewing on the stove top was no match for the already hot and heavy Indiana summertime air. The scent that it added to the atmosphere made the humidity not only bearable but luscious.
Maybe that’s why I like this cake. When it is baking it smells just like it used to in our humid, un-air-conditioned house in the country while my mom was stirring strawberries on the stove top and bread was baking in the oven. I call it a breakfast cake not only because it includes an egg, some buttermilk, and fresh fruit, but because it is a satisfying pairing with your routine breakfast beverage. No frosting or glaze is necessary since the baked cake comes out of the oven with a top crust of roasted red fruit and a crown of brown sugar crunch. Of course you can eat this cake at any time of day. Eat it after dinner for dessert with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream or dollop of whipped cream and single espresso. Eat it for an afternoon snack. This cake is not fussy. It is comforting and just sweet enough to cut the density of the day much like the sumptuous humidity of jam-making days in the country.
Strawberry Buttermilk Breakfast Cake
Adapted from Martha Stewart’s Strawberry Cake
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, plus more for pie plate
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup – 1 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 pound strawberries, washed, hulled and halved
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10-inch pie plate. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium bowl.
Put butter and 3/4 cup brown sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
Mix on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
Reduce speed to medium-low; mix in egg, buttermilk, and vanilla.
Reduce speed to low; gradually mix in flour mixture.
Transfer batter to buttered pie plate.
Arrange strawberries on top of batter, cut sides down and as close together as possible.
Sprinkle at least 2 tablespoons brown sugar (or demerara sugar) over berries.
Bake cake 10 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees.
Bake until cake is golden brown and firm to the touch, about 50 minutes more.
Let cool in pie plate on a wire rack.
Cake can be stored at room temperature, loosely covered, up to 2 days.
The outdoor market in my neighborhood is now open for the season, and I have been enjoying the undeniable pleasures of fresh locally grown produce. So far in Northern Indiana that means sweet teensy strawberries, leafy salad greens, rainbows of beets, and “hand-snapped” (one farmer tells me each time) bundles of asparagus. My roasted red beet and spring green asparagus recipe comes together perfectly this time of year. Minimal dishes required for maximum flavors in one roasting pan: sweet/smoky/earthy/smooth/crunchy.
Serves 1 or 2 depending on the situation. I imagine this dish as a beautiful accompaniment to grilled salmon or an oven-poached white fish.
3 small red beets
12 green asparagus spears
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt & pepper
1 tablespoon pine nuts
Preheat oven to 350-degrees.
Scrub beets and slice into coins. Place in roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Bake for 8 minutes, turning once.
Meanwhile, rinse asparagus and chop off the woody ends. Place asparagus on top of the roasted beets and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt & pepper. Bake together for 10 minutes more, turning once. At the end of ten minutes you should be able to smell the roasted asparagus and see a slight browning on the stems. If needed, keep the pan in the oven a few minutes longer.
While the asparagus and beets are roasting in the oven, toast the pine nuts in a medium skillet for about five minutes. Toss them frequently or they will quickly scorch. Set aside to cool.
Top the warm roasted red beets and spring green asparagus with slices of fresh mozzarella and sprinkle with toasted pine nuts. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice never hurts either.
Deviled eggs: one tasty dish that I associate with the return of Spring. I first remember eating them at my grandma’s house for Easter dinner, then as part of the potlucks during Memorial Day and Fourth of July cook-outs. It never occurred to me why my deviled eggs never tasted like those that I remembered eating at family gatherings. I had been following, what I thought were, fairly standard deviled egg recipes; they all included some sort of mustard. It turns out that the deviled eggs I grew up to love only had three ingredients — eggs, sugar and “salad dressing” (a sprinkling of smoked paprika was my addition). I learned this fact when I made deviled eggs with my mom this past Easter, her way. She turned to her recipe box and pulled out an index card describing her mom’s recipe. We laughed at the spelling of the title, and she told me, “I typed this recipe card the day before I left for college.” Slightly sweet and simply egg-creamy. Now I look back at these photos and think of the promise of Spring and the comforts of home.
A helpful resource: 5 Secrets to Perfectly Hard-Boiled Eggs – thank you, Design Mom.
One D.C. afternoon, I took the Red Line to Dupont Circle station. I walked one block west on Q Street to 21st Street and entered the doors of the Phillips Collection. Next, dreams came true. Sitting on a bench in the Rothko Room, standing in the Laib Wax Room, turning the corner to encounter Bonnard, Diebenkorn, Grandma Moses, and The Migration Series. I consciously reminded myself to breathe.
Hours later I walked back onto the street and consciously reminded myself to eat. Crabcake pasta at Afterwords Cafe, and a buy-one, get-one-free good fortune at Astro Doughnuts (cinnamon and lemon-blueberry, respectively). It was more than two weeks ago, and I am still gathering my thoughts about that one May afternoon.
A few weeks ago I was in Manhattan for a quick research trip with my mom (though all researchers know that there is no such thing as quick research). It was snowing when we flew into the city at midnight, and despite cool temperatures, there were signs of spring throughout the city. These photos were taken nearby Central Park South. Sculpture by Olaf Breuning.