Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Savoring the harvest: Whole-Raspberry Chocolate Torte

by June

This time of year, we have candy growing in the garden: Raspberries!

Nobody can resist that little patch of sweetness. The girls beeline to the berries with their playmates. Our favorite little toddler eats so many he finally has to be lured away with a wagon ride because he can't tell the difference between ripe red and tummy-ache pink. Of course, the animals have a taste for raspberries too; Blossom and Fern spend hours shooing away the goats, the chickens and the two baby raccoons who are living in our honeysuckle hedge.

My dear daddy grew raspberries when I was growing up. The ripe berries were one of the few reasons I ventured voluntarily into the garden back then — because I hated, hated, hated getting nabbed for weeding duty. It was hot and soggy-wet-sopping humid out there in that Missouri garden. Not a breeze stirred. There were chiggers just waiting to burrow into my skin and keep me awake, itching and burning.  I used to cry and weed at the same time. But I did love to pick the raspberries. Not only were the berries delicious, I also had a wonderful time stirring up a breeze of chatter and laughter with my dad. I still can't taste a fresh-from-the-cane berry without thinking of Grandpa Hickory.

If there's one thing Grandpa Hickory loves as much as a raspberry, it's a chocolate-covered raspberry. So here, on his birthday, is the recipe for a cake that makes us all grateful for the raspberry tradition in our family. Our only challenge is saving a cup of raspberries for baking instead of eating straight from the garden.

Whole-Raspberry Chocolate Torte

1//2 cup blanched almonds, toasted lightly
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon amaretto
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup raspberries plus additional for garnish
1/4 cup heavy cream (or 1/2 cup if you want to pour the frosting on)
6 ounces fine-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped

— In a food processor grind the almonds, scraping the bowl occasionally, for 5 minutes, or until they are the consistency of a nut butter, and reserve the mixture.
— In a bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water melt the chocolate and the butter, stirring occasionally, and remove the bowl from the pan.
— In the large bowl of an electric mixer beat the eggs until they are pale, add the sugar gradually, beating, and beat the mixture until it is very thick and pale. Beat in the chocolate mixture, the framboise, and the reserved almond butter and beat the mixture until it is combined well.
— Into the bowl sift together the flour, the baking powder, and the salt, beat the mixture until it is combined well, and fold in 1 cup of the raspberries gently.
— Turn the mixture into a well-buttered 8 1/2-inch springform pan, spreading it evenly and smoothing the top, and bake the torte in the middle of a preheated 350°F. oven for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. let the torte cool in the pan on a rack and remove the side of the pan.
— In a small heavy saucepan bring the cream to a boil and remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the chocolate, stirring until the mixture is smooth, and let the ganache cool for 3 minutes. Spread the ganache over the torte, smoothing it with a spatula. Let the torte stand for 1 hour, or until the ganache is set. Transfer the torte carefully to a serving plate, garnish it with more raspberries (if you can rescue enough from the children, goats, chickens, and baby raccoons).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dream goats!

by June

It's beginning to look a lot like Heidi around here...only without the spectacular mountains and the gruff old grandfather. But we do have goats and two young girls who love tending them. Buttercup and Clover are —at long last— home!

At first there was some crying. The doelings cried in their new pen, and Blossom and Fern cried because the doelings missed their mama and their old home. But we all sat in the grass and talked about patience and giving the babies some time, along with lots of love and fresh grass.

The love abounds now, thank goodness. The goats only cry when the girls walk away from them. Not that the girls walk away from them much. They pretty much run out in their jammies and stay out until the fireflies are flittering in the meadow.

While we were waiting for the goats, we spent a lot of time soaking up all things goat-y. We've joined up with the fun family over at Jump into a Book for a Heidi summer-reading adventure (along with Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson).  And we loved finding the latest version of Heidi on film (with Max von Sydow as the grandfather). It's a beautiful version that made us ache for the mountains and some curious goats to clamber about in the green grass.

It may not be the Alps around here, but the is now splendidly goat-filled.

Friday, June 18, 2010

All the colors of anticipation

by June

Anticipation starts out pink...

blanches to a pearly blossom...

and then turns green.

Guess what color we can't wait to see?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Twin-twin: Grace Lin has a new book!

by June

Blossom and Fern are twins. Sometimes this is a deeply comforting fact. Sometimes it is very, very annoying. Whenever something eerie happens -- such as when they say something at the exact same moment -- they are as likely to sigh in exasperation as to marvel. "Twin-twin," they grumble.

Blossom and Fern at age five

When they were little, they went through a phase in which they only wanted to wear the same thing. Since I bought them different outfits (and they wore a lot of hand-me-downs), they sometimes had to improvise. Most memorably, they divided Blossom's red pair of shoes and Fern's green pair of shoes down the middle. They created matching pairs. Down the street they would go: red-foot, green-foot, red-foot, green-foot. Their puddle boots were the same: They each had a frog on one foot and a dinosaur on the other.

Back then, it was fun to be so much alike.

Because the girls attend a wonderful Chinese School, our family met the author Grace Lin when Blossom and Fern were five. The school's children were performing the world-premiere of The Ugly Vegetables as adapted for the stage. It was a terribly rainy Saturday, and we were Grace's escorts. She spent a lot of time in our soggy van.

We never forgot the thrill of having her show the school kids how to draw a giraffe. She read to them, and her applause was the warmest and most supportive in the room when the children were singing or making her book come to life. The thrill stayed with us.

And she remembered a little something too -- or two little someones. She later told us Blossom and Fern had helped inspire an early-reader book she was working on about twins; she was fascinated by how they each ate a cookie but in different ways. This past fall, she came to our Chinese School again -- and this time she brought the galleys of her soon-to-be-published book about twins. She presented the unbound, signed pages as a gift to "the original twins."

Fern and Blossom see the galleys for the first time

Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same!is more than one kind of gift to our twins (and all twins). Blossom and Fern now chafe at being considered the same, and yet it is so hard for them to tease apart in a "showy" way how they are different: They both like the same food, both adore caring for their chickens, both prefer math and science. But somehow perceptive Grace Lin was able to see right through all the similarities; she focused her creative brilliance on their differences. She wrote a whole book about all the ways twins can be different even as they love being always together.

Grace Lin is launching her gorgeous twin book on June 19 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. If you're in New England, it would be a fun day-trip. And if you and a friend dress alike, you'll get a special hand-made prize. Maybe you could mix-and-match your shoes with someone you love. That's very twin-twin.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The sweet life: Ants, ants, ants!

by June

Home, sweet home! Our home must be really sweet because we have ants everywhere — the walls, the windowsills, my sewing machine. I even had to flick one off my keyboard just now. (Do you think that could have anything to do with eating chocolate while I work?)

One place I truly welcome ants is on my peonies. Apparently it's just an old wives' tale that they eat the sugar off the buds, which allows the petals to slowly unfold into those lush, sweet blooms. But the ants do eat other bugs. Nature is beautifully in balance when the ants are on the peonies.

I can't resist a buxom, perfumed display of peonies on the table. But there's no doubt the peonies carry more ants into the house. Has anybody tried submerging the flowers in cold water for five minutes before arranging them in vases?

If a sweet life — filled with peonies — means ants, then more please!

Friday, June 4, 2010

For the love of dandelions

by June

Warning, warning to all delicate ears! I am about to utter something (apparently) shocking: I love dandelions.

I had no idea mine was a love that dare not speak its name. Then, I was invited to a barbecue in a neighborhood that prides itself on smooth grass lawns that cascade from every front porch down to the street — a street (I might add) that looks as if it is swept for the pleasure of the children who scoot around the cul-de-sac on their trikes and bikes. I didn't know many people at the gathering, so I was engaging in one of my favorite social activities; I was eavesdropping (or as little Fern used to call it "earsdropping").

A man with a beer says to his neighbor: "You know what I found in my lawn?"

The neighbor shakes his head. Uh-oh. He knows what's coming and doesn't even want to hear it.

"Yep," confirms the man with the beer, "A dandelion."

"Did you call The Guy?" the neighbor asked.

Oh, he called The Guy all right. I gathered that The Guy was responsible for the care of the lawns (which tells you how far I was from my comfort zone, a zone where I am responsible for nagging Birch to mow occasionally). I felt sorry for The Guy. He promised to get that filthy weed out of there and to redouble his chemical efforts to make sure another one didn't pop up its downy head anywhere near the cul-de-sac.

Really? Really? I mean, it's a sunny-bright flower that gives the bees something to buzz about long before the rest of the blossoms wake up to spring. Then it turns into a puffball — a puffball! — which happens to be one of the most amazingly engineered seed delivery systems on the planet and the best natural toy ever.

And the chickens look beautiful pecking insects on a stretch of new green tufted with yellow buttons.

Not to mention, dandelions are food! Food! Dandelions are one of the earliest greens after a long winter; they were prized by our grandparents who didn't have Whole Foods down the street. Just ask Laura Ingalls Wilder. Dandelions can be soup, salad, even wine.

The dandelion's long taproot digs way down, even into clay, breaking up the soil like a little tiller, and then it sucks those minerals up to the surface where other plants use them to thrive. I read somewhere (but can't remember where) that it's great to compost dandelion roots; all those beneficial minerals end up in your garden. (I'm assuming it had better be a hot compost or the roots might start growing again, but maybe one of the real gardeners around here will comment and make us all wiser.) And — I have this on the authority of my sweet daughter Blossom — you know that white milky stuff that oozes out of a dandelion stem? That stuff makes warts go away! Blossom has the wart-free big toe to prove it.

Okay, I understand that dandelions can get into places where a gardener doesn't want them. I have one under a rose bush that seems bigger than the rose bush. And the rose bush has thorns, and I have to go through the thorns to get to the dandelion. So the dandelion wins.

But I am not going to poison the thing. We live on a river we love, a river where our children float twig boats and paddle about in the deep pool. It's a river filled with trout. Great blue herons nest along it. Blossom and I once got very still in our shared innertube and watched a heron scoop a fish from the current and swallow it whole.

We do what we can to protect our river, and we know that anything we might spray on the dandelions is going to end up there.

We call it our river because we hear it at night when we're falling asleep and because we hike to its waterfalls with picnic lunches and because we float on the current and watch the birds. We call it ours, but really that river belongs to all of us — you and me and the children who aren't here with us yet. It's such a small, precious planet we share. These days, we're reminded of that in heartbreaking ways. The weather is weird. Oil gushes into the Gulf, threatening life and livelihoods far beyond where the leak is. Just last weekend, we gardened in the gloom of smoke from forest fires in Quebec -- a day's drive away.

We are all neighbors — me and you (wherever you are) and that man with the dreadful dandelion in his lawn. I wonder sometimes how it happened that we have transformed good things (like dandelions) into bad things that we combat with truly bad things (toxic chemicals) that in turn threaten other good things (the water we depend on for life itself).

Fern was riding in the car recently, watching the world go by. It was when spring was new and suddenly green. Some of the lawns had dandelions scattered merrily in the grass. Some didn't. "I miss the dandelions," she said as we swept through a manicured neighborhood. "It doesn't look natural."

It isn't natural. Dandelions are adapted to be wherever their seeds can drift. So maybe we all should let ourselves love them as we did when we were little: Pick a puffball, pucker up, blow. And if one of those little seeds drifts off and starts to grow in a place we just can't abide, let's promise one another, as neighbors, that we'll fight it with something just as natural as the plant itself. I hear boiling water works every time.