Tuesday, August 12, 2014

For John.

Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings,
with your most gracious favor,
and further us with your continual help,
that in all our works,
begun, continued, and ended in you,
we may glorify your holy name,
and finally, by your mercy,
obtain everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A friend of mine died last week. I don’t know how else to put it; or rather, I don’t want to put it any other way. I hadn’t spoken to him in several months, since I left Nashville, and I didn’t even know he was sick until three, maybe four weeks ago. What do people do? What do I do? This seems like the silliest, most obvious of questions, but really I don’t know.

I suppose the thing to do is not to ask that question, not to ponder my response to make sure it’s timely, appropriate, enough. It will never be enough. John has died. This fact leaves a gaping hole in life, in lives many more than my own.

A few minutes ago I was trying to conjure up my grief (yes, I have to do that sort of thing), and I rummaged through my closet to find the card that has on it the prayer above, the prayer from Weavings, a journal John edited for years. We read this prayer at the beginning of every weekly meeting John and I had during the year I spent under his guidance at The Upper Room. As time went on I found it more and more surprising that John wanted us to recite this prayer so regularly. It seemed so orthodox, so Anglican, so Jesus-y…so unlike what I expected from a man as progressive in his thinking as John was.

Why did we pray this prayer? I never asked. I wish I could say I have an answer now, but no. I have a feeling I won’t for years, perhaps many of them. Still, it brings me…something. Not peace, exactly, or even comfort, but just a bit of memory, a bit of John. Is that what prayer is? Memory? Presence? The memory of presence? If it is, then I’m on board with it more than I’ve ever been. Not that prayer needs me to be on board, but I need to be on board with prayer, or at least with some act, any act, that makes the dead come alive again.

I wanted to write this to, oh, I don’t know, process my feelings, or to use what I learned as a hospital chaplain this summer, to allow grief to enter and to welcome it. Now I’m not so sure. But, I am utterly convinced that not enough people knew John because the whole world didn’t. I am writing this, and sharing it, so at least another handful of people know how good he was, or is. If not the whole world, I want a few more creatures to remember him. Amen.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

might as well bake a cake.

I think it's safe to say that as I write this, almost everyone I know is in a place that is really, really cold. According to my omniscient iPhone, in Nashville it's 16, in Charleston 32, in Atlanta 19, and in Bamberg 30 (and on top of that it's hailing there). So, I win the coldest place contest, but to be honest it's not a victory I want to claim.

I don't know about you, but when it's cold (read: under 50 degrees) all I want to do is wrap myself in a blanket, read novels, eat carbs, and drink wine. (I hate how much that sounds like the start of a chick lit novel, but I suppose mass marketing gets you somewhere.)

Anyway, since "read The Witness of Preaching" and "write a paper about theology and suffering" are not on the list of things I want to do, I figured I'd put them off by writing something about a cake that I made before Christmas. This is no ordinary cake. I asked for a cookbook specifically because of this cake. It's quite the project, more like two desserts in one, as it involves peeling and poaching pears on top of making batter and a glaze. So, what I'm really saying is that it's the perfect project for a snow day. If you're stuck inside, why not make something beautiful and delicious?

A couple of small but important notes: 1) make sure you poach the pears until they feel tender enough that you think you could eat them easily with a fork. I didn't poach mine long enough and this made the cake a bit difficult to eat without a knife; 2) if you don't want a huge cake, you can cut this recipe in half and make it in a loaf pan, which is how it was originally written.

cardamom cake with whole pears & white chocolate
adapted from homemade winter, by Yvette Van Boven
serves 16-20

for pears:
6 medium crisp, firm pears, peeled but whole, with stems left on
1 (750-ml) bottle dry white wine
2 1/2 c sugar
8 whole cloves
6 star anise
16 cardamom pods
4 cinnamon sticks

for cake:
1 lb (4 sticks) butter, softened
2 c sugar
8 eggs
3 c self-rising flour
2 tbsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp salt
6 oz white chocolate, cut into chunks

Poach the pears: in a large saucepan, combine the pears, wine, 2 1/2 c sugar, cloves, star anise, cardamom, and cinnamon and poach for 30 minutes over low heat, or until you can easily pierce the pears with a fork.

Take the pears out of the poaching liquid and set them aside to cool. Add 2 1/2 c water to the poaching liquid, turn to medium-high, and boil to reduce the liquid by half. (Watch this carefully so you don't burn it--which is what I did!) Let cool.

Make the cake: preheat the oven to 350. Using a mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl until creamy. Beat in the eggs one at a time.

Sift the flour, cardamom, and salt over the batter and gently fold it in with a spatula.

Grease a large tube pan, and spoon the batter into the pan. Press the pears into the batter, stem ends up. Bake for 60-70 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Allow cake to cool in the pan, then gently remove it to cool completely on a wire rack. (You might want to find a helper for this part--you have to flip it twice to make it right side up, and it can be tricky to hold this massive cake with one hand without breaking off the pear stems...or just breaking the cake! But I have faith in you.)

Melt the white chocolate: set a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, and stir the chocolate in the bowl until melted. Using a spoon, drizzle the chocolate over the cake.

Let the chocolate dry for a bit before serving the cake in thick slices, with the reduced pear syrup poured on top.

Monday, October 21, 2013

hey, this recipe has pumpkin in it.

It's pumpkin season. I know this because every person I have ever met has posted about how many pumpkin muffins/lattes/soups/pies he or she has already had and it's not even November yet. As you may have guessed, I am not as big of a pumpkin fan as every else that I know. But I am a people pleaser, so I bake pumpkin things when people want pumpkin things.

I made this recipe for a "pumpkin potluck" my friend Leslie hosts every year. Last year I made Dorie Greenspan's "pumpkin stuffed with everything good"...so if you want a serious pumpkin fix (and accompanying post-pumpkin food coma), you could double up. Fair warning: both recipes are very rich but also very good.

While we're getting into the fall spirit, here are a few pumpkin jokes for your viewing pleasure (yep, it's that time of night):

Q: What does a pumpkin pie say after a big meal?
A: That was filling!

Q: What is a pumpkin's favorite sport?
A: Squash!

And my personal favorite...
Q: How do you mend a broken jack-o-lantern?
A: With a pumpkin patch!

I'll be here all week.

pumpkin whoopie pies with bourbon-maple-cream cheese filling and candied walnuts
adapted from Gourmet Live
makes 16

for the cookie-cakes:
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
pumpkin cookie-cakes ready to be filled!
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 c packed light brown sugar
1/2 c vegetable oil
1 (15-oz) can pure pumpkin (not pie filling)
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
for the candied walnuts:
1 1/2 tbsp maple syrup
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 c pecans
for the filling:
6 oz cream cheese, softened
3/4 stick (6 tbsp) unsalted butter, softened
Pinch of salt
1 1/4 c confectioners' sugar
2 tbsp bourbon
2 tbsp pure maple syrup (preferably Grade B)


For cookie-cakes:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpats.
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices in a bowl.
Whisk together sugar, oil, pumpkin, egg, and vanilla in a separate large bowl until well combined, then stir in flour mixture.
Using a 1-ounce ice cream scoop or tablespoon measure, drop a scant scoop's worth of batter or 2 scant tablespoons of batter onto a lined baking sheet to form 1 mound. Make 15 more mounds, arranging them 2 inches apart until baking sheet is full (you will have batter left over).
Bake until springy to the touch, 15 to 18 minutes. Transfer cookie-cakes to rack to cool.
Form and bake remaining batter on the other parchment-lined sheet. You should have a total of 32 cookie-cakes.
Leave oven on.
For candied walnuts:
Line a small sheet pan with parchment paper.
Stir together sugar, salt, and 1/2 tablespoon water in a small saucepan. Heat over moderate heat until sugar dissolves, then bring to a boil. Stir in pecans.
Spread mixture on lined sheet pan and bake until coating is bubbling and golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Cool completely on pan on a rack.
Coarsely chop candied walnuts.
For filling:
While cookie-cakes are baking, beat cream cheese, butter, and salt in a bowl with an electric mixer until smooth. Add confectioners' sugar, bourbon, and maple syrup, and mix on low speed until smooth.
Chill filling until firm enough to hold its shape when spread, 30 minutes to 1 hour. 
Assemble whoopie pies:
Spread 1 heaping tablespoon of filling each on flat side of half the cooled cookie-cakes, then top with other half of cookie-cakes. If necessary, chill whoopie pies just long enough to firm up filling again, about 30 minutes.
Gently press walnuts onto filling around middle of each whoopie pie to help them adhere to filling.

the finished product.