This might be the first September in ten years that I have stayed home all month. I usually go to the cabin or to celebrate Ivy’s birthday, or both. This staying in place has given me time to pay attention to all the sweetness, and I’m starting to think that it’s my favorite month of the year. Where I live the earth has not lost its deep warmth, the bees are still humming away, and there is more time to just wander in the garden and be astonished.
Instead of the rush of springtime and all the related chores that pile up urgently in that season, late summer/early fall in this mild climate brings with it rudbeckia flowers, bursting milkweed pods, and figs that softly droop on their stems. Am I not the most favored of humans, that I can walk a few steps out my back door and pick a ripe fig to eat then and there?
The heat waves are less intense than the spells in August. We can comfortably leave the windows open all day and night and enjoy the breezes blowing through, as they cycle from cool to warm and back to cool and damp again in the evening. I respond in my several mood and sweater changes.
Many people talk about Indian Summer, but it’s just normal California weather to have hot spells in late September and even into October. If it gets hot after a killing frost, I think that is what they call a true Indian Summer… Call it what you will, I love it, and hate to see it go.
But October is nearly here, and suddenly I need to put toys under cover, order firewood, and plant peas. Last night I had to put another blanket on my bed. Good-bye September! I love you!
I don’t think I mentioned here that my friend Elizabeth fell asleep in Christ earlier this year, at the age of 103. Just this morning I was given this teacup of hers, and it made me think about my friends and tea parties. The mutual friend who brought this cup had been one of the guests at the party that Maggie and I gave not long after her grandpa died.
My house is in such disarray from the usual project paraphernalia plus that of some unusual ones; it’s hard to imagine even a recent time when I was able to clear my head and all horizontal surfaces in preparation for such an event, much less to cook for it! This is what Maggie and I laid out:
One of my favorite tea goodies is a lemon cake, the recipe for which I’d shared a year before the party above occurred. I’m pretty sure that one was the last tea party I gave, but I don’t intend for it to be the last ever. Here is the recipe again, below, as a little reminder to me of hopes and dreams. It is part of this post titled: “Lemon Trees and Cake.”
My father scorned Meyer lemons. Growing his own lemons made him, and all of our family, partial to the intensity of a Normal Lemon. If anyone wants to give me lemons, Meyer or otherwise, I will never turn them down, but I also prefer what I grew up with.
When I cook with lemons I usually think of my father and our trees. If as I child I ever found my father lying on the living room floor it was not because he’d been wrestling with my brother, but more like he’d been wrestling with those trees. During pruning season he’d invariably put his back out doing that necessary work on our ten acres (We had twenty more acres in oranges.) That would be more than a thousand lemon trees.
I learned to drive a tractor before I was old enough to drive a car, because Daddy needed me to pull a trailer between the rows when my sisters and I were picking the second, smaller crop of lemons that wasn’t worth hiring a whole picking crew for.
In those pictures that I retain in my mind, my brother wasn’t old enough to buckle down and help yet. He was sitting under a lemon tree crying, and the dust mixed with his tears to make a miserable face. I must say that he’s more than made up for it in the years since, and is one of the most buckled down and hardworking people on the planet.
The latest thing I cooked with lemons is this meltingly appealing cake, which Mr. Glad requested for his birthday last month. That he wanted cake was very strange, because it’s been Blackberry Pie as long as anyone can remember, and a good month to be born if you want that. But I was happy to oblige with the cake, and I devoted most of one Saturday to making it, so I had plenty of time to enjoy the process.
In the past I’d only baked this glazed cake for tea parties that I used to have in a bygone era. Now that it’s been revived in my repertoire I’ll want to make it more often. It uses a lot of lemons in the form of juice, and in this recent case, even more fruits to get enough lemon zest to impart the deep lemony flavor. It can be made up to three days ahead and freezes well.
Lemon-Sour Cream Cake
1 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
3 large or extra-large eggs at room temperature
1 tablespoon minced lemon zest
2 teaspoons lemon extract
1 cup sour cream
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 cup strained fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons finely minced lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter and flour a 9-inch lightweight Bundt pan. Sift the flour, baking soda and baking powder together into a medium mixing bowl. Set aside.
In a medium mixing bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, or in a food processor fitted with the metal blade, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Beat in the eggs, minced zest and lemon extract and mix for 2 more minutes.
Reduce the speed to low or pulse with the food processor. Add half of the flour mixture and mix until well combined. Add half of the sour cream, mixing constantly, then add the rest of the flour and sour cream, ending with the sour cream.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 35-40 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack and remove the pan. Make the glaze while the cake is still warm.
To make the glaze, using a fine-meshed strainer, sift the powdered sugar into a small, non-aluminum bowl. Add the lemon juice and lemon zest and whisk to break up lumps.
Transfer the cake to a rack placed over a rimmed baking sheet lined with wax paper. Using a long skewer, poke holes in the cake at 1-inch intervals, almost going through to the bottom. Slowly pour the glaze over the cake, giving it time to absorb as you pour. Let the cake cool to room temperature. Cut into wedges and serve.
Every time I make this cake, about 1/4 cup of the glaze ends up on the baking sheet under the cake, and would be wasted and washed down the drain in all its precious lemonzestiness if I didn’t find a way to use it. This time I whipped some heavy cream and slowly drizzled the syrup into it at the end when it was getting nice and thick. I froze the mixture in custard cups, and ate one of them the next day. It was quite delicious!
I’m a slave of the moon. Speak only moon to me.
Speak of candles and of sweetness or don’t speak at all.
Speak of gains not losses, and if
you don’t know how, never mind. Say nothing.
I went crazy last night. Love saw me and said,
“I’m here. Don’t shout! Don’t tear your clothes! Be still!”
I said, “Oh, love. It’s not that I fear. It’s something more!”
“That something more is no more. Don’t say a word!
I’m going to whisper secrets in your ear.
Just nod your head and say nothing.
A moon, being made of soul, appeared on the path of love.
Ah, how delicious it is, a journey on the heart’s path! Don’t speak!”
I said, “Oh, my heart, what moon is this?” Love pointed and said,
“This one’s not right for you. Pass by in silence!”
I said, “Could this be an angel’s face? Could it be human?”
“It’s neither human nor angel. Hush!”
I said, “What is it? Tell me! You’ve turned me upside down!”
“Stay upside down, and be silent!”
You’re seated in this house filled with images and illusions.
Get up! Don’t say a word! Just pack your bags and leave!
I said, “Oh, my love. Be like a father to me.
Isn’t this the face of God?”
“It is. But by your father’s soul,
Hush! Be silent! Don’t say a word!”
translated by J.W. Clinton
For a couple of weeks now I’ve been trying to put into words how it was for me, releasing Monarch butterflies who had emerged from their chrysalises two or three hours before. It was the most exciting thing yet to happen in my garden, that’s for sure. I had an rush of adrenaline stretching over the several days it took for all four caterpillars to finish their metamorphosis into creatures exquisite and huge. They were huge by comparison with the tiny pods from which they’d unpacked themselves, and their delicate design and bold colors were revealed in all their glory by being seen close-up and still in their mesh cage, waiting for their wings to dry.
I watched them as they hung and dried. When the time was right, I followed the Monarch website instructions: Move your finger toward the head of the butterfly, and it will climb on. Lift it out… I got a phone video with one hand while carrying the first Monarch to a flower I chose because it was both a known Monarch favorite nectar source, and purple to contrast with the insect’s colors.
That one was fully dry and not hungry yet; it wouldn’t step off my hand onto the blossom, but as soon as a breeze came by, it flew. I looked down and the second butterfly was climbing out of the cage and fluttering away. As one friend said, “It’s like being present at a moment of creation.” Indeed. And that was a little much to take, the reason for my intense feelings, and why this Rumi poem resonates with me. An insect, a moon, a grain of sand… anything might bring you there.
The next chrysalis wasn’t due to open until the afternoon; I deadheaded coneflowers nearby and met with this mantis, who I think was probably the same one I had encountered a few days before. I was friendly and he looked at me; I took his picture in full daylight. Then my neighbor stopped her car in the street and said out the window, “Isn’t it a little hot to be working out here?” I checked the thermometer and it was 93°; okay, I will go indoors for a while. Once in the house, I felt something on my head, and brushed it off… the mantis! Hey, fella, I know you like me, but you belong outside… So I gently carried him out, with my bare hands this time, being so comfortable/familiar with the creature. 🙂
The third butterfly’s wings were still a little damp when I released it in the afternoon; that same neighbor had come over for a cool drink in the cooler indoors, and she stayed to watch. And before the Monarch was dry enough to fly far, the little girl next door was able to come and get close to the action. I was really happy that it worked out for me to share at least a little bit of this wildlife event with other humans.
Following Rumi’s imagery, on my path in just one week’s time I have had encounters with 1) the moon and the mantis, 2) newborn butterflies walking on my hands and 3) a mantis who likes me. Somewhere inside I was going crazy and shouting, and also trying to listen to that voice saying, Hush!
This whole experience certainly jolted me out of my waiting doldrums. A word from another friend helped calm me down: She told me that mantises eat butterflies, and I laughed as I guessed the mantis “mind” as he looked so friendly-like at me: This large shape carries the scent of those juicy Monarchs I like, but I don’t see how to get my mouth around it….
At least one of the butterflies hung around the garden for a few days, giving me more opportunities for picture-taking, and to say a more leisurely good-bye. These were the babies I’d collected as eggs and raised for more than a month; I’d invested a lot of time in collecting milkweed leaves for them and cleaning their cage. It seems now a small price for the reward, though I could wish my responses were more like quiet joy and not so emotionally exhausting.
More recently, a building inspector was here and needed to write a note for the contractor, so I invited her to sit at my kitchen table, from which she immediately saw my garden and calmly gushed over it. I told her about the joy my garden gives to me, and about the Monarchs, too. She said, “It’s like the first garden….” Well, yes. Isn’t this the face of God?
For I remember with certainty this fixed psychological fact; that the very time when I was most under a woman’s authority, I was most full of flame and adventure. Exactly because when my mother said that ants bit they did bite, and because snow did come in winter (as she said); therefore the whole world was to me a fairyland of wonderful fulfillments, and it was like living in some Hebraic age, when prophecy after prophecy came true.
I went out as a child into the garden, and it was a terrible place to me, precisely because I had a clue to it: if I had held no clue it would not have been terrible, but tame. A mere unmeaning wilderness is not even impressive. But the garden of childhood was fascinating, exactly because everything had a fixed meaning which could be found out in its turn. Inch by inch I might discover what was the object of the ugly shape called a rake; or form some shadowy conjecture as to why my parents kept a cat.