Hibernation.

Dear friends,

HunkerDown_Banner_Gold_01

Source: Mary Kate McDevitt

It seems I’ve been tucked away in a state of winter hibernation. I never meant to be away from this space for so long, but life has been wonderfully sleepy and vibrant at the same time. That’s what I love about winter: it seems perfectly natural to alternate long naps with flurries of inspired, pre-spring planning and daydreaming.

So much has happened since we last visited. In no particular order:

I learned how to cook Indian food from an authentic Indian cook. My friend Rama is a whirling dervish in the kitchen. She’s inspiring to watch and she’s promised to follow up her first lesson on northern Indian cuisine with a second lesson on southern flavors and recipes. In return, I’ve promised to offer a baking lesson. My niece has challenged me to tackle these lovelies and I’m just waiting for a spare moment to roll up my sleeves.

Though I’m following from afar, I’ve become the world’s biggest fan of Kate’s college tennis team. The new coach has arrived, the girls are deep into their season with a 7-1 record, and I’m loving that modern technology and social networking has allowed me to follow their every match even though I haven’t been able to attend any. That’s soon about to change, though. In two weeks, we’re headed to Kate’s campus to celebrate her 20th birthday and watch two days of competition live and in person. I can hardly wait!

Mr. Mom and I took a quick trip to Naples, Florida, where we celebrated Valentine’s Day and consumed an obscene amount of seafood. Last year I wrote this post during a business trip, after which I vowed to take Mr. Mom with me next year. “Next year” arrived last week and we enjoyed two unplugged days of adult time before I kicked into high-gear for 48 hours of jam-packed business appointments. Mixing business with pleasure in the Sunshine State was the best part of this dreary February for me.

The worst part? I brought home a nasty case of strep throat, followed by a sinus infection, and I spent three days in bed this week. I’m still coughing like a coal miner and limping back to some semblance of normal. Unfortunately, between vacation and illness, I’ve fallen seriously behind on my running program.  At least I’ve got about 42 weeks to catch up. A thousand miles seems far, far away from my sickly seat on this cold, winter day.

Still, the sun is bright today, the thick layer of ice that coated our part of the state on Wednesday is slowly melting, and I’m snuggled up with my two favorite boys researching gnocci recipes for our Sunday supper. With all that, who can complain?

With gratitude {for good meds and a winter that’s almost over},

Joan, who has a long list of spring projects on the docket and anticipates a lovely and productive March

So long sweet summer.

Dear friends,

This is how I spent my last weekend of summer –

Cooking (grilled salmon, pasta, assorted salads, barbequed chicken, baked french toast, biscuits and gravy, green chili enchiladas and more) . . .

baking (apple pie, apple-pineapple crostini) . . .

decorating (tablescapes, new arrangements for the mantle and buffet, flower arranging) . . .

and mothering (big hello and goodbye hugs,  staying up late for long talks, relaxing on the sofa with every person and critter in our household piled on with me, watching movies, passing out money and, of course, all that cooking).

It was three days of bliss I won’t soon forget. I even worked in a couple of naps, some leisurely reading, and lots of the US Open. It was the perfect end to summer, a much-needed respite before the busy fall, a luxury for a homebody who’s called away all too often.

With gratitude {for 72 hours of full-nesting},

Joan, who feels a new sense of energy and says bring on the fall

Joisey girls.

Dear friends,

Not long ago I was kvetching to a friend about how much I’ll miss Kate when she moves away to college, about how time is slipping away, about . . . oh, you know — that thing that mothers do.

And my wise friend, who has been the source of many good ideas and advice over the years, suggested I needed to plan a girls’ trip with Kate — a week’s getaway after she graduates from high school, just the two us, as a kind of rite of passage/celebration/cementing of the mother-daughter bond experience.

I was all over the idea and mentioned it to Kate immediately. I told her we would go anywhere she wanted to go (within reason of course, which my girl is nothing if not reasonable) and to think about it.

A couple of nights ago I followed up with her.

Joan: Have you been thinking about where we might go for our girls’ trip?

Kate: Anywhere is fine, Mom. Wherever you’d like to go, I’m sure I’d enjoy it.

Joan: No, no, no. I want you to pick. It’s your trip.

Kate: Well, I was talking to a friend and I was thinking how fun it would be to go to Hoboken.

<insert screeching tire sound>

Turns out, guess who is in Hoboken?

Photo credit: hddavila2007

Our favorite baker ever, Buddy of Cake Boss!

Kate started her confectionary odyssey before I did. In fact, she’s the one who inspired me to take up baking. Long before I was spending my Sundays making multi-layer, filled cakes from scratch, Kate was creating and selling these little delights:

So Hoboken it is! And while we’re in the neighborhood, I suggested we ought to drop in on the Big Apple. Because there’s just a few things we might enjoy over there, like hanging around outside 30 Rock and stalking Tina Fey.

I’m so excited, I’m tingly! I’ve been to NYC three previous times, in 1976, 1987 and 1999, but Kate has never traveled there. The last time I was in Manhattan, I went to the top of the World Trade Center for the first time. Kate and I both want to see Ground Zero.

If you’ve been to NYC more recently than 1999, would you do a girl a favor and drop me some suggestions? Where should we stay? Where must we eat? There’s so much to choose from, I need a carefully edited itinerary and would welcome your input.

With gratitude {for the anticipation and excitement of planning a big trip},

Joan, who in her secret dreams believes she could have been a real-life Carrie Bradshaw, pink tutu and all (except for the Mr. Big part because she is clearly more into the Mr. Moms than the Mr. Bigs)

The whole damn thing fell apart.

Dear Friends,

Yesterday was intended to be a day of pure bliss.

Until it wasn’t.

I woke up early, itching to get started on a new cake recipe I’d been eyeballing. It’s called simply Coconut Cake from Joy of Baking, but it piqued my interest because of the addition of lemon curd.

If there’s anything that jolts my senses and delights my taste buds, it’s lemon curd. It is the golden nectar of the Gods and it is a powerful ingredient in any dessert that calls for it.

Photo by Instagram

Lemon curd is easy to make with only four ingredients (lemons, egg yolks, sugar and butter) and can be kept on hand in the fridge. I always vow I’m going to do  that — make it, you know, and keep it on hand. But I never do, which means I’m always scrambling to whip some up when a recipe with lemon curd catches my attention. (Lemon curd gets tastier the longer it chills, so it’s really better if you make it a day ahead.)

The best part about Coconut Cake is the fresh coconut. The recipe doesn’t call for it, but this baker does. Mr. Mom chose a perfect one yesterday when we grocery shopped, and — because he’s the best sous chef an executive chef could have — he prepped it for me. This is not the kind of work I like to do. It required drilling a hole in the coconut with a power drill so we could drain the coconut water. Then he meticulously removed the shell from the coconut flesh. Then he carefully shredded an entire coconut. I prefer playing with flour and mixers, so while I baked, he patiently prepped my coconut. This is the result:

Photo by Instagram

Mmmmmmm, fresh coconut. If you’ve never tried it, you should. It bears no resemblance to the sweetened, preserved, bagged coconut-like-stuff you find in the baking aisle.

So . . . we had some curd in the fridge, some coconut about to be toasted, and two cakes in the oven. We were having a great morning, Mr. Mom and I, drinking coffee and puttering around the kitchen and flavoring our entire home with the sweet smells of lemon and coconut. My god, I thought, this is the best Saturday I’ve had in a long time.

Until my cakes fell apart.

For some inexplicable reason, my cakes refused to leave their pans. I’ve baked a lot of cakes in the last few years and I can’t for the life of me begin to explain why this particular cake clung to the pan like mortar on bricks. First I tried, then Mr. Mom tried using every trick and tool we could think of or find on the internet. When we finally finished, my cakes were out of the pans and in a tattered, crumbly mess of random shaped pieces on the counter.

Mr. Mom, like the man he is, picked up a piece, popped it in his mouth, and said: No matter. It tastes really good, so just put it all in a bowl and toss it together and we’ll eat it. Doesn’t matter what it looks like.

But if you love baking, you know it does matter. Those of us who bake often do so because we care about art as much as taste. I bake cakes because they’re pretty. And I had my mind set on a pretty cake until a stupid recipe threw me a curve ball.

So I drank another cup of coffee and mustered my reserves, and then I set about constructing a cake from the ruins on my countertop. There were so many obstacles I seriously doubted the wisdom of my decision. The cake was so fragile it fell apart if you breathed on it. The curd was so sticky it kept pulling apart my pieced cake rounds. The frosting — while supposedly like 7-minute icing — was more like melted marshmallows and was unspreadable. The best I could do was pour it over the top like ganache and then try to camouflage the holes with toasted coconut. But I patched and poked and pieced and nudged and, in the end, I had this:

Photo by Nikon D90

Not the most attractive cake I’ve ever made, but a far sight better than the pile of ruins on my countertop from which I built it. It even held together when I sliced it (thanks to the sticky curd!).

Photo by Nikon D90

Mr. Mom had slipped outside for a while to take care of chores, and when he returned to the kitchen and saw my construction project sitting proudly atop the cake stand, he was wowed.  He didn’t know until I told him later that the pooled icing around the bottom of the cake was a mistake. He thought it looked intentional. (At least I think the icing was a mistake. The recipe author certainly didn’t mention the icing would be pourable instead of spreadable.)

And you know what? The cake that fell apart was surprisingly good. Holy-cow good. I-spent-six-hours-on-it-and-I’m-not-even-sorry good. And as I savored every bite, I thought about how sometimes life falls apart unexpectedly and you can either crumble with it, or pick yourself up and try to piece it all back together.

I have experienced relationships that fell apart. House deals that fell through. Jobs that teetered on the verge of disaster. And financial and legal setbacks that threatened to ruin everything.

A little more than a year ago, my mother fell ill and died eight weeks later. At the same time, both my sisters were also gravely ill. My life exploded rather than fell into bits that fall. I’ll never forget one Sunday in particular when I left my mother in hospice care and went shopping for her burial clothes, then visited my oldest sister in ICU, then took a phone call from my middle sister’s neighbor who said she’d been rushed to the hospital and I should go downstairs to the emergency room and check on her.

So a dessert that falls apart? Piece of cake, really.

With gratitude {for patience and courage learned through tribulation and baking},

Joan, who will likely never use this recipe again but thinks coconut cake with lemon curd is a brilliantly tasty idea

PS: Just so you know, I don’t discount Mr. Mom’s suggestion to make trifle out of ruined cake. Sometimes, you really do have to throw the pieces of your life into a bowl, mix it up, and hope for the best. But yesterday, I had the time and the energy to do a bit more, and so I spackled my cake back together and it looked never the worse for wear. It may not meet your definition of bliss, but it got pretty close to mine.

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