Category Archives: baking

Feeding my writing

I haven’t done a pastry post in a while. I haven’t really experimented with pastries in a while. I’ve just made the standards, really, Grandma Scott’s sugar cookies and my son’s favorite, chocolate chips.

Truth is, for me baking is meditation, baking and walks with my dog, Maynard. Unfortunately, between the first nasty cold I’ve had in years and the “polar vortex” conditions we’ve been experiencing lately, Maynard and I have been mostly unable to walk outside.

Winter is a fantastic time to bake. I can’t describe the smells in my kitchen because I lost that sense a long time ago. Still, there is something visceral about baking. Perhaps, it’s that it brings me back to all that was good about growing up. That is being in the kitchen with family and friends. The kitchen in our house was Grand Central Station. It was where I did homework, where we gathered for holidays, where we sat with friends and discussed the workings of the world over sweet breads and coffee. Sure, we had a dining room and a table in that dining room, but it was rarely ever used except as a work station for my dollhouse crafting. My mother just preferred the kitchen, preferred everyone be in the thick of wafting scents and sizzling sounds of sustenance being prepared. We preferred it too.

 

A large version of the mini cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin.

A large version of the mini cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin.

The kitchen was part enigma, part fascination for me. I couldn’t cook my way out of a paper bag. I burned pizza and rice. My lack of sense of smell was a definitely a handicap when it came to seasoning savory food. It just couldn’t get it the way my mom could. Still, I always loved food, loved just about anything my  mother made–and now my husband makes. In fact, she and my chef husband have ruined me for your everyday restaurants. They pale in comparison to anything that came out of our simple, non-commercial, very homey kitchen. While trying to recreate some of that, for me, has been a challenge, the one thing I could do well was bake. I was always good at baking. Perhaps my pasta sauce needs a little work, but give me flour, sugar, butter, and pure vanilla extract and watch me go.

It started in the kitchen in our old house in Canton. It started there with my mother and her helping me bake chocolate chip cookies. It started with me watching and helping her make cannoli shells. It moved from my mother helping me to my best friend and I exploring our baking prowess on our own. Specifically, I remember the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, a classic, and numerous batches of drop biscuits and a few pineapple upside down cakes. Later, in college, my roommate and let our final exam stress out by baking Christmas cookies.

Now, I have my own very small kitchen, smaller than perhaps it should be for as much as it gets used. Still, we make our galley work. Also, if  there is one place I’ve ditched books and gone electronic it would be for recipes. My apologies to cookbook writers everywhere. With my iPhone I have so many options available at my fingertips and an endless number of new things I can try. What is particularly nice is that I can take the ingredients I find in my pantry, look them up, and usually find something that fits.

Last week, I took some canned pumpkin I had left over from Thanksgiving and found a cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin recipe. You can find the recipe at Sally’s Baking Addiction. I made regular size muffins instead of minis, so I had to cook them a bit longer. They were not overly sweet. That’s fine by me. I hate when I get a muffin and am expecting a muffin, but it turns out sweeter than cake. Anyway, they were a hit with friends and family, and they made for nice morning side to my cup of ginger pear tea.

This week, I made a basic vanilla sheet cake from scratch for my son’s friend who is leaving soon for army basic training. I’d tried the Better

Sheet cake made from scratch.

Sheet cake made from scratch.

Homes and Gardens recipe many times, but the cakes always seemed a bit dry. This time I searched for another simple option. I landed on the best recipe at TheKitchn. The cake came out more moist than I had expected. I think a little tweaking with applesauce might make it just right. I consider myself a butter cream frosting connoisseur, so I can make it in my sleep. I need to beef up the cake decorating supplies and practice a bit with the tips. Still, it has been less than 24 hours and the cake has all but disappeared. And no, Maynard has not gotten hold of any.

In the end, what it does for me, besides making my family happy, is it gives me a little space from writing, directs my creative energy in another way that literally and figuratively feeds my writing and I think it’s important to take that time and do those things or we get burned out. I wasn’t feeling burned out, but it felt good all the same to fill the well in that way. How do you fill the well?

 

Thoughts for a quiet Sunday

One of my wet felting projects.

One of my wet felting projects.

I don’t often get quiet time. I have teenagers. I have a husband. This morning, I have a bit of quiet. I figured I’d write a blog. I have gotten away from writing–and blogging. I have worked in fits and starts all summer, but I did not accomplish nearly anything I had hoped. I am learning to forgive myself that much. I wanted my novel done done. I don’t want to think about it anymore, but I am still at the beginning of this latest revision and it is agonizing.

This is the real life of a writer, I guess. I am agonizing over revision. Then I get frustrated and move to something else. Poetry. I’ve written some new poetry. I am working on a collection now. Rethinking my collection anyway. I have my creative writing students to thank for that. I had put poetry down for a while. Maybe, I should just put writing down for a while. It is such a struggle lately. Maybe, it’s supposed to be that way. Maybe, I need a vacation.

I had a vacation. I strained my back on vacation and couldn’t really do much but lay in bed or hang out on the floor in front of the television. It took me almost three weeks to recover from that.

Really, I need another creative outlet that doesn’t involve writing. I found it. I am wet felting things now. Mostly, I was looking for an inexpensive way to make round art to decorate my career corner. I got most of the other quadrants of my home to where I feel like they need to be according to Feng Shui. At least the corners I have access to. I do feel a sense of calm when I am in those places. My kids’ rooms are a bit difficult to access, but that’s okay. My career corner has made me feel uneasy. It doesn’t look pleasing or inviting and round art is hard to come by unless you want to fork over a lot of money. I decided to wet felt some things. I was interested in doing it for a while. Now, I’m hooked. Maybe that is the outlet I need, something other than writing, but something creative all the same.

Fall is quickly approaching. I start teaching new classes this week. The summer was busier than I expected and not with fun stuff. I do appreciate the times when things seemed quiet and summer-like. I am grateful for a lot of things that I did do, even if I didn’t get the writing done that I wanted to.

The summer things I did enjoy and continue to enjoy include:

1. Going to the Farmer’s Market every Tuesday to pick up our CSA share. Our fridge has been stocked full of the best fresh local produce all summer. We have eaten some really healthy fare. We should have done this a long time ago. It also made us carve a little time out with our good friends who we split a share with.

2. I got to spend more time at home with my kids for the first time ever! I worked, but teaching college is odd hours so I spent more time at home.

3. I started running with my dog, though my back issue sidelined me for a bit. I am back at it and happy to be so. My next goal is to run a road race.

4. I spent a day at the Detroit Institute of Art with my daughter and dear friends of ours. I grew up going there with my mother, so it was a blast to take my daughter there. Also, all this talk of appraising the art to possibly sell it to help Detroit get out of debt made me want to see the world class exhibits all the more. I am hoping, hoping, hoping with every cell of my being that Detroit realizes the value in keeping that treasure and sees that while Detroit has a lot to deal with it still needs these treasures intact if it wants to rebuild and become vibrant. If there is nothing cultural to come to in Detroit, no one will come. (Sorry, for the soapbox. I love my DIA).

5. I taught my first college level creative writing class and loved it!!! I found out how important it is to revisit the basics of creative writing from time to time.

6. I baked a lot and continue to bake. We hoped to make a killing at this one music festival this summer, but it turned out to be a bust. We were left with a lot of staples. I mean a loooooot of staples. I have giant bags of flour and sugar, like 25 pounds giant for the flour and a huge box of sugar that will last forever. So, I make my own bread now and I have been making zucchini bread, lots of zucchini bread. I even convinced my daughter to try it and she loves it.

Well, here we go. The last week of summer is upon us. I measure it by when the kids are in school. They start after Labor Day. I get a break from one college, but the other starts this week, so I never really got much of a summer break. Still, I only taught one day a week over the summer, so I can hardly say I worked the entire summer. Anyway, the fall will be tricky getting kids to different schools far away, but we’ll figure it out and before I know it Christmas will be here.

Well, I’d better get back to revision. See you much sooner than before, I hope.

Lemons, fig cake and setting

When life sends you lemons (and figs) via the U.S. Postal Service, make lemonade and fig cake. Okay, so life didn’t really send the lemons and figs. My parents sent them. They sent them all the way from their home in California where lemon and fig trees produce so quickly they can’t eat or use the fruit fast enough. I’ve enjoyed the gifted bounty. I have made delicious fresh-squeezed lemonade and an out of this world fig cake that I found a recipe for at a blog called Lemons and Anchovies. With a name like that the recipes have to be good. This one was probably the best thing I’ve baked from scratch ever.

None of this has anything to do with the Midwest Writers Workshop, except to say that my time there was a nice gift in what has turned out to be a stressful, quickly dissolving summer. As I mentioned in my previous post, I learned so much. I think today’s nugget will focus on what I learned in D.E. (Dan) Johnson’s workshop classes. I attended two. For those who don’t know Dan, he writes historical mysteries set in Detroit in the early 20th century. I have not read his books. I intend to even though I’m not one to really read mystery. I’m compelled by the glimpse I had of his writing and by his writing knowledge. He knows his stuff.

Fig Cake made with figs from my mom and dad’s backyard in California.

His workshop on setting was an elaboration on the writing mantra “show, don’t tell.” That description doesn’t really do it justice, because he dove deeply into what that really means and how that really works to bring a narrative to life. I think the most valuable piece of advice I walked away with was his technique for making sure he’s using enough of every sense. He goes through his manuscripts with five different highlighters each representing one of the five senses. This gives him a visual diagram of how often he’s using these to bring out setting. I haven’t tried it yet, but it has made me much more aware of where I’m using all the senses in my work.

So, now that I am thinking of the senses, time to go let the golden, soft fig cake melt in my mouth, so I can taste the hints of sweet cream, olive oil and butter as the smell of baked fig wafts about my head. I won’t forget to wash it down with the sweet and tangy fresh lemonade.