Fill-in-the-blank cake

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When we first moved down here, we brought along with us two scraggly little lavender plants. They were so small and insignificant that we planted them together, side by side, in front of the house. Four years later, they have cascaded down the hill, a formidable hedge of silver and purple. Ali doesn’t like to make wide paths, and with the lavender asserting itself in spite of being cut back rather severely, we now have to lean into it in order to walk down the path into the garden. This results in heady perfume, and finally my mother came to the only possible conclusion — we had to make a lavender cake.

I was going through a moment of butter fatigue, so we found an olive oil cake recipe on Saveur magazine’s website and adapted it to our needs. I used a souffle dish with a ceramic cup in the middle, but a bundt pan would also be fine.

Fill-in-the-blank cake

You will need:

butter and  flour for cake pan

3 c. flour

4 eggs

3/4 c olive oil

2/3 c milk

1 T baking powder

2 T lavender, stemmed and finely chopped

Heat your oven to 325 F. Butter and flour your cake pan. If you are using a cup, butter the outside of that as well.

Beat the eggs and sugar until pale yellow, about 1 minute. Add the flour, oil, milk, and lavender and stir to mix. Add the baking powder and mix again.

Pour into your pan, with a finger on the cup to keep it from shifting (and use a heavy cup — I tried with a stainless steel one and it wandered during the baking).

Bake about 40 minutes.

It’s a lovely cake that really tastes like lavender through and through. It’s a bit on the dry side, not a gooey thing, so it’s just right with a nice cup of tea.

I call it fill in the blank cake because it converts very handily into any kind of cake you like. I will be posting some variations in weeks to come, in which I have used this cake to recycle some by-products of making beverages!

How do you address a tree?

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I have always liked to read the paper, and while many newspapers have perfectly good websites, I just can’t enjoy reading them online as much as I do rustling through paper pages. To that end, we subscribe to the Guardian Weekly, and although it reaches us a little late, it serves us well in thoroughly depressing us about the state of the world. If I am not feeling brave, I start from the back so that I can read the culture pages first and then work up to the misery in the front pages.

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In a recent-ish issue, I came across an article by George Monbiot about the poet John Clare, born 13 July 1793. It inspired me to look up a poem that he mentioned, the Fallen Elm, which I thought I might share here. It looks long-winded, but do not be afraid of it — it whisks swiftly along as you read it.

The Fallen Elm

Old elm that murmured in our chimney top
The sweetest anthem autumn ever made
And into mellow whispering calms would drop
When showers fell on thy many coloured shade
And when dark tempests mimic thunder made –
While darkness came as it would strangle light
With the black tempest of a winter night
That rocked thee like a cradle in thy root –
How did I love to hear the winds upbraid
Thy strength without – while all within was mute.
It seasoned comfort to our hearts’ desire,
We felt that kind protection like a friend
And edged our chairs up closer to the fire,
Enjoying comfort that was never penned.
Old favourite tree, thou’st seen time’s changes lower,
Though change till now did never injure thee;
For time beheld thee as her sacred dower
And nature claimed thee her domestic tree.
Storms came and shook thee many a weary hour,
Yet stedfast to thy home thy roots have been;
Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower
Till earth grew iron – still thy leaves were green.
The children sought thee in thy summer shade
And made their playhouse rings of stick and stone;
The mavis sang and felt himself alone
While in thy leaves his early nest was made,
And I did feel his happiness mine own,
Nought heeding that our friendship was betrayed,
Friend not inanimate – though stocks and stones
There are, and many formed of flesh and bones.
Thou owned a language by which hearts are stirred
Deeper than by a feeling clothed in word,
And speakest now what’s known of every tongue,
Language of pity and the force of wrong.
What cant assumes, what hypocrites will dare,
Speaks home to truth and shows it what they are.
I see a picture which thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny;
Self-interest saw thee stand in freedom’s ways –
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be.
Thou’st heard the knave, abusing those in power,
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free;
Thou’st sheltered hypocrites in many a shower,
That when in power would never shelter thee.
Thou’st heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrong’s illusions when he wanted friends;
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade amends –
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom – O I hate the sound
Time hears its visions speak, – and age sublime
Hath made thee a disciple unto time.
– It grows the cant term of enslaving tools
To wrong another by the name of right;
Thus came enclosure – ruin was its guide,
But freedom’s cottage soon was thrust aside
And workhouse prisons raised upon the site.
Een nature’s dwellings far away from men,
The common heath, became the spoiler’s prey;
The rabbit had not where to make his den
And labour’s only cow was drove away.
No matter – wrong was right and right was wrong,
And freedom’s bawl was sanction to the song.
– Such was thy ruin, music-making elm;
The right of freedom was to injure thine:
As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm
In freedom’s name the little that is mine.
And there are knaves that brawl for better laws
And cant of tyranny in stronger power
Who glut their vile unsatiated maws
And freedom’s birthright from the weak devour.

In case you were wondering what environmentalism sounded like 200 years ago!

I found myself thinking of how loving a portrait of a tree it is and was reminded of an episode where I came face to face with a childhood book and was in for an unpleasant surprise.

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A friend of mine in Istanbul, upon hearing I would be in NYC, asked me to bring back a copy of the Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I remembered having read it as a child, so I was eager to see it again and went to pick it up first thing. Imagine my surprise when I read it and was overwhelmed by an unavoidable sense that it was entirely misogynistic. This boy just takes and takes from the tree and the tree just gives and gives and never calls the boy on what an utter cad he is being (in fact she is happy, the author tells us again and again) and it only ends when the boy is too tired to take any more from the tree and the tree has nothing to give anyway. I thought, what, is this what mothers are supposed to be? Is this the ideal woman? How could I have read this and just accepted it as a child — has it formed me somehow? I guess some books don’t stand up as well as Good Night Moon to being revisited (endlessly, in that case).

I bought the book and gave it to my friend without comment, because I thought why not let her form her own opinions of the book. And now that I have found this poem, I have decided to adopt it as my favored ode to a tree. There must be many more. If you have any favorites, won’t you let me know?

And with that, the boys and I went out for a walk to visit some of the neighborhood trees…

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In My Kitchen, August 2012

I’ve been an enthusiastic follower of the In My Kitchen series that Celia, over at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial does for a while, so I thought I’d have a go. (My kitchen is outdoors, hence the lack of walls.)

This month in my kitchen there is:

A bottle of chili oil

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This is an easy thing that I just learned how to do from the inimitable Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbook, Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province. I’ve had the book for a while, but never tried this. When I found some chili peppers from last year in a paper bag, I knew it was time.

This is how you do it:

Ingredients:

1 cup dried chili flakes, seeds and all (If you grind your own in a food processor, do it in the open air so you don’t breathe in the spicy dust!)

2 1/4 cups neutral oil (She uses peanut, but I can’t get that so I used canola, to good effect.)

1. Heat the oil to 350 F/177 C. (This cooks the oil, so it tastes better.)

2. Let the oil cool until it reaches 225-250 F/107-121 C (This is when having a candy thermometer is fun.)

3. Add the chili flakes and let it settle for a few hours. Then it is ready to go. It will take on a deadly red hue and be lovely and spicy. (I put a spoon in the jar, poured in the hot oil, and then added the chilis. I never removed the spoon again because it was so satisfying to always find it there when I need it. And I dip into my chili oil at every chance I get!)

There is a loose bundle of lemongrass knots:

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Every year, our friends at Sundance Camp host an international juggling festival where they have stalls for people to sell things. Ali likes to make lavender bags, little muslin bags filled with lavender from our garden, to sell there. This year, we’ve got loads of lemongrass, and Ali just keeps planting more, so I have been tying blades of lemongrass into little bundles to sell as lemongrass tea. It’s a nice job for the heat of the day, and they are very handy — you just drop one in your cup and add hot water. A minute or two later, a lovely cup of tea is ready.

And there is a cup of flowers from the garden:

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I spend most of my time tending the vegetables, but we do grow a lot of flowers as well. I never get around to cutting them, but my mother always does, and unlike me she can also arrange them nicely so that they look just right. She is leaving this Sunday for NYC, and I will miss having her here. Actually, we all will. She fits into our life here so easily, and while she is here it is hard to imagine how we managed. Luckily, she plans to be back soon, at the end of October. Thanks for all the help and support, mom! I hope you had as much fun being together as we did.

(Baki is licking brownie batter out of a pot back there. They were brown butter brownies, a recipe my mom found online at Bon Appetit. The brownies were very tasty, you might even say evil, and that recipe can be found here.)

And those are a few things in my kitchen. Thanks for joining me!

write it down

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Well, the storage space us empty, as are the bookshelves on our old house (in fact, I took the shelves too). The movers were just about able to close the truck, and then they had to tie the bed on to the back of it.

I arrived in Antalya with the boys yesterday at noon, Baki with two teeth filled and a two minute egg-timer from his dentist in his pocket. The truck arrived last night, and now all of the stuff is in the flat, having been marched up a flight of stairs by three very determined movers. The flat is a maze of boxes, which threw me into a bit of a panic.

Thankfully, my mother was there and she was perfectly calm. She reminded me of how many times we have packed, moved, and unpacked (six big moves in my lifetime alone) and she assured me that there was hope. All I could see was total chaos. One room in the flat has been completely devoured by boxes. The photo above is one my mother took of Kaya in the mess this morning.

Still, moving is always full of little surprises. While I was gathering books that Ali and I had left behind, I came across some old papers of my dad’s — there were three files that he had written, assignments for work; and there was a sheaf of his poetry, a work in progress, with lots of corrections and scribbling on it. I stopped for a moment to read them and was immediately thrust directly into my father’s mind. His voice, not the physical one but the written one, was right there. I felt for a moment that my father, who is so resolutely gone from this world, had been momentarily revived.

Nothing can fill the deep chasm that is left when you realize that you will never, ever see someone or speak to them again, but to be able to hear them speak, even if it is not in dialogue with you, is a remarkable, potent thing. It reminded me of how precious a few written words can be. Forget reliquaries full of bits and pieces, the most powerful remains I can think of are words.

If you have something to say, for the sake of those you leave behind, write it down somewhere. Write it by hand in a notebook while no one is looking, type a blog post, send a letter. You can direct your words at everyone or no one.

Think of Sei Shonagon’s pillow book, completed in the 11th century in Japan. Here’s a little excerpt:

Elegant Things

A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wisteria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.

Things That Should Be Large

Priests. Fruit. Houses. Provision bags. Inksticks for inkstones.
Men’s eyes: when they are too narrow, they look feminine. On the other hand, if they were as large as metal bowls, I should find them rather frightening.
Round braziers. Winter cherries. Pine trees. The petals of yellow roses.
Horses as well as oxen should be large

Things That Should Be Short

A piece of thread when one wants to sew something in a hurry.
A lamp stand.
The hair of a woman of the lower classes should be neat and short.
The speech of a young girl.

(Translation Ivan Morris – The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon – Penguin Classics)

I think it’s remarkable how much there is in those three short lists; I feel as if I know her.

Your words are a gift, why not be generous with them? The people who mourn you and miss you will be grateful. And the ones who like you now might, too.

Gold medal slob

I remember when I gave my notice at work before moving to Antalya, I mentioned in passing to my boss that I was hoping to learn how to spin wool. He commented that I ought to have plenty of time for that, living in the middle of nowhere. As it turns out, although I did start to spin wool into yarn, it was more out of sheer determination than an excess of free time. Living as we do, off the grid and miles away from the nearest store, I have found that the basic mechanics of daily life seem to fill the day.

Of course, there are plenty of people in this world that live the way I do and get much more accomplished than I ever will. I think I am an inefficient person because I never seem to have enough time in the day, yet I never end any day feeling like I have achieved superhero amounts of work. Still, whether I am actually doing anything useful or it is just taking me way too long to achieve next to nothing, I am more or less busy all day.

Now here is why this is by no means a bad thing — the more free time I have, the more time I am likely to waste. It is true — I am a thwarted lazy person. By this I mean that although in my heart I am deeply committed to a life of laziness, I just don’t have a lifestyle that allows me to be a practicing lazy slob. And it’s a good thing, too — if I had more time to myself, I would not write the great American novel. I would probably spend most of my newly freed time doing next to nothing.

I know this for a fact because I am in Istanbul for a few days at the moment, taking Baki to the dentist to get fillings (which fills me with parenting guilt) and emptying my storage space here in order to move my stuff to Antalya. Being in the city means that I have TV and I have spent hours (and I am not speaking figuratively, I actually mean hours) watching the Olympics.

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The boys, at the site of my undoing.

Okay, so there’s nothing wrong with watching sport, and the Olympic games are pretty heady stuff. There are all these amazing athletes, brimming over with potential, and you get to watch the culmination of all their hard work. You witness unbelievably emotional peaks and valleys and it all unfolds live on TV. What elevates me to the level of a world class slob, though, is that to truly enjoy this spectacle, I like to settle into a comfy chair with junk food and diet cola while I watch these dedicated athletes sweating it out. I munch munch through the events and munch faster while waiting for scores. In the back of my mind, some part of me with scruples is howling, but I ignore it and wonder if Baki ate all that popcorn that my mother in law got him.

Tomorrow, I load the moving truck and we go back home on Thursday. I think, in the interest of saving me from myself, that it won’t be a moment too soon.

Christmas come early

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… or at least mid-August did. It is folly to hope for rain between June 15 and August 15 here. The forest goes hot and dry as a tinder box, and we all hold our breath until we can reasonably expect rain. Most years, there are forest fires that break out, and of course many of those are caused by humans. The shepherds spit into their hands to extinguish their cigarettes, knowing how easy it is for an ember to grow into a hungry fire.

In the garden, summers have always been a time of struggle between this heat and relentless dryness and the need to keep plants alive and quenched. This year is a huge change for us because of the drip irrigation lines. Suddenly, it is always spring under the surface of the soil. We spend less time watering, yet the garden is doing better than it ever has. We’re eating peppers and eggplants months ahead of when we used to, and the heat actually seems to help things grow rather than slowly killing everything. Of course, there have been casualties, most notably among the tomatoes. I have some plants that have just up and died. Or more puzzlingly half died. I am still not sure why. Did the heat zap them? Were they under watered? Over watered? Scratched by the chickens? Peed on by animals? Should I have pruned them? Luckily there are enough healthy plants that we have plenty to eat, but the questions are always at the back of my mind. Like I’ve said before, though, this is the way we learn — through disappointment and confusion!

Although the drip irrigation has changed our relationship with heat and water, this did nothing to dampen our amazement at having not one but two torrential rain showers last week. Our mountainside (for it did not venture all over, this rain. It seems to have gotten snagged by the mountains) was drenched. A sweet smell of pine and dry vegetation newly dampened filled the air, and the garden seemed washed and brighter afterwards. It was such a pleasure to walk through wet grass, to feel the earth beneath our feet give way gently as we walked, and to see leaves and flowers weighted down, hanging their heads with droplets of water.

The weather has snapped right back, and it’s 38 C (100 F) again today. But it was lovely to have a short reprieve, even if, as my mother remarked afterwards, it almost instantly felt as if it had been a dream.

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