How to mail a birthday cake.

The Boy turns 21 next week and we won’t be there to help celebrate – what to do? One of us (I can’t remember who to blame) said, “We should mail him his birthday cake!”. This isn’t just any old cake – in our family you get a checkerboard cake with your choice of any three colors or dealer’s (mother’s) choice if you can’t make up your mind. We did really UPS the cake to Providence this afternoon, so I dug out a 15 year-old photo from birthday #6 to show the finished effect.

Colorful, no?

This year’s version is YELLOW/red/blue and yes, I did mean to put that in all caps. Wow, the yellow.  I’ve adapted the recipe from the back of the Chicago Metallic Cake Pan Set because really, Einstein himself couldn’t divide this batter into thirds precisely enough to make the original work out to three even layers. The original proportions are in parenthesis if you feel up to the challenge.

Checkerboard Cake

Preheat oven to 340 (325) degrees and grease and flour the three 9″ pans. The instructions imply that the pans are nonstick but um, no. I use cooking spray, and I also spray the divider.

Mix 5 (4) C flour, 4 (3) tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt in a bowl and set aside.

In a small pan or the microwave melt 1 1/4 C butter which is 2.5 sticks  (1 C or 2 sticks) and cool.

In a VERY large bowl, cream the butter with 2 1/2 (2) C sugar. Add 5 (4) eggs, one at at time, beating after each addition. Add 1 Tbs vanilla.

Add 2 C milk (1 1/2) at room temperature alternately with the flour mixture, beat until batter is smooth. (I use the lazy baker’s method: add half the flour and beat in, add ALL the milk and beat until smooth, add the remaining flour and beat 30 seconds. There! All done while still obeying the ancient law passed down by mothers everywhere to “Start with dry and end with dry”.)

Divide the batter in thirds and add food coloring. If you want to make one ring chocolate you might add 3 oz of melted semi-sweet chocolate to one bowl.  Work fast, because the batter sets up fairly quickly and doesn’t “flow” as nicely after a while in a warm kitchen.

wow, yellow

Put the divider in the pan and press down to snap in place. Fill each ring about half-way up with each color, alternating the color choices in each pan. There are very good directions on the box for this step although they say to wash and dry the divider between pans and yikes, that’s a lot of work. I lift it carefully and vertically out of the batter and go on to the next pan  because I’m a bad person but really, the cake will be fine.

Insanity cake

The box emphatically tells you DO NOT PUT DIVIDER IN THE OVEN, so don’t do that.

The directions say to bake for 25 minutes but with the slightly thicker layers I check at 30 minutes. If you can, rotate the pans halfway through to keep the layers even. Remove when cake springs back to the touch or a tester comes out clean. The colors will probably darken on the surface but they will still be hallucination-bright when you cut a slice. Cool on racks for about 10 minutes, remove from pans. Happy crazy clean-up!

Too pretty to clean

I use a chocolate ganache frosting spread very thinly between the layers to allow the checkerboard to really show off, and then much spread it much thicker on the  top and sides to hide the colors until the cake is cut. We’ll have to wait for The Boy to send pics to see that.

I put the unfrosted layers on cardboard cake discs, sealed each one in a gallon Ziplock bag and stacked them in a 12″ x 12″ x 8″ box with a box of birthday candles and assorted decorations, 2 sealed and bagged plastic containers of frosting, a card, and a lot of air-pillow-packing. The nice ladies at the UPS Store slapped fragile stickers all over it (thanks Victoria!) and sent it off with loving care. Happy Birthday, Boy!

I happy am, if well with you.

packed up and gone

. . when each of you shall in your nest
Among your young ones take your rest,
In chirping languages oft them tell
You had a Dame that lov’d you well,
That did what could be done for young
And nurst you up till you were strong
And ‘fore she once would let you fly
She shew’d you joy and misery,
Taught what was good, and what was ill,
What would save life, and what would kill.
Thus gone, amongst you I may live,
And dead, yet speak and counsel give.
Farewell, my birds, farewell, adieu,
I happy am, if well with you.

Excerpted from “In Reference to her Children, 23 June 1659”

By Anne Bradstreet

The 7% solution

Did you know that only 7% of us in the US don’t use an electrical appliance to dry  our laundry?

A and J at the bungalow, S. Portland, 1992

After thinking about it, I couldn’t say that 7% of us technically use a “clothesline” because I can only hang laundry outside for 1/3 of the year. When it’s cold and damp (easily 2/3 of the year) we have an Amish “finger” contraption that hangs on the wall by the woodstove. Growing up my son referred to it as the “clothes toaster” which is fairly apt – when the tiny woodstove is going full bore it only takes about 20 minutes to dry a rack of laundry.

I love it when I can hang a full load of laundry (or two, or three) outside on the line. Yes, the texture of line-dried towels is a little rough, but soon enough the dryer version begins to feel a little slimy. I have nothing but sympathy for folks who have no place to string a line indoors or out but for the rest of us – get with the new program! Your clothes will last longer, and so will the ozone layer.

There’s even a handy website (when is there not?) to get started with facts and hints: Project Laundry List. See you out in the yard on the next nice day!

Time travel souvenir

I was never here, but I have pictures.

Your mother would know, your mother would know.

Occasionally I use this blog to keep track of information that passes through my hands, and this house. Much as I’d like to sometimes, I can’t keep everything – I can’t even keep track of everything.

My brother would like a few family pictures for his son’s room and I’m sending him this photo of our great-grandparent’s house in central Connecticut when it was newly built. I have several copies of the photo, but this one has details written in my mother’s small, lefty handwriting on the back:

House was Dark Aqua on top with a gray bottom and cream trim, built around 1900 by Louis Harrison Barnard on the “V” corner of Bloomfield and Tunxis Avenues in Bloomfield, Ct., across the street from his “Wintonbury Farm”.

Raymond Barnard married Martha Louise Miller, and they moved into the house in 1938 after Louis died. They had previously lived in the “little house” across the street with their four children (including my mother, Phillip’s grandmother).

Hope Phillip likes the photo!


I had a post ready to go tonight about mulching strawberry plants with re-purposed slate shingles. It’s a great idea but it’s going to have to wait because I just came across pictures of my father’s dog, Ching.


Ching won a blue ribbon at the pet show in 1938. My father would have been 12 years old. I don’t think I could have picked the breed but on the bottom left of this piece of newsprint there’s a note, “Dwight’s Chow”, in my mother’s printing. There are also photos of Ching on the hood of my father’s car (probably four years later, when Dwight could drive?), and another of him with his bowl of kibble.

Ching on topCould the car geeks help me out here? My grandfather ran Burnham’s Garage in Bloomfield, CT. for many years, and all the boys had cars. Click on the photo to enlarge and tell me, is that a Buick? Very classy, especially with the canine hood ornament.

No fair!That’s a happy dog. Kind of a weird photo, but a happy dog.

A boy and his dog, with apologies to Harlan Ellison.



This photo shows Hellen Anzonetta Parcels Miller, my 3 x Great Grandmother, demonstrating the proper use of a hand auger to Great Uncle Reuben on a milk crate.

I have a great many studio portraits of family members, but this is a rare snapshot. It is printed on thin photo paper and has turned almost black with age; scanning and Photoshop brought the image closer to the original.

Rueben was born 14 January 1893 and appears to be about age 7 – 9. Hellen died 31 January, 1910 so I estimate the date of this photo @ 1900. The clothes are wonderful: Rueben’s flowing shirt and boy cap, and his Grandma’s flowered dress and capable hands. I have no idea who took the photo, but I’m grateful for their grasp of new technology for this slice of life.

It’s summer and. . .

the traffic is terrible. U turns in traffic, K turns downtown on one-way streets, and I think I saw an “M” turn (hint – it involved a boat trailer) down at the town dock on Saturday. On the up side, the Boy is home on holiday and brought the Girl with him and we are having a wonderful time.

Tonight we had La Piana squash ravioli with “everything” pesto. I picked handfuls of oregano, summer savory, Genovese basil, parsley, and a few carrot tops, processed them with garlic, sea salt, and olive oil and served topped with grated Parm. The tiny ravioli cook up soft and flavorful, and each box makes a huge amount. Fantastic.

I’ve also made brown butter rice crispie bars and blueberry boy bait from Smitten Kitchen, blueberry muffins, green curry, poverty cake, buttermilk waffles, and bog juice. I just can’t seem to help making all the family favorites, and I can’t regret it, either.

So I was out in the garden, watching the green hive (Pistachio) buzzing madly at their front entrance, no doubt screaming about the fantastic patch of goldenrod down the road at Triple Chick Farm. The buzzing seemed to be coming from two places at once, though, and I turned around to see a swarm of bees approaching from the swamp. They circled the big spruce tree a few times and then coalesced on a branch about 45′ above the hives. They stayed the night and were gone by 9 a.m. the next morning. Our current hives, Vanilla and Pistachio, seem unaffected by the visitors. The football shaped swarm is in the middle of this photo, right above our electrical wires.

Second plantings are in for kale, cabbage, broccoli, green beans (hedging my bets on a late frost), basil, lettuce, radishes, carrots, parsnips, and beet greens. We’ve had a respectable amount of rain for a Maine August and the garden is lush and productive at the moment.

While our son is here on break we tried out Eden, the new (or rather, resurrected) vegetarian restaurant in town. “Plant-based cuisine” for the win!  I had a bento box of grilled baby bok choi, spring rolls, maple roasted tofu, steamed soy beans – it was fantastic. Bonus points for being right next door to Mount Desert Ice Cream (Fearless Flavor!), where we had incredible cones: blackstrap banana, chocolate wasabi, and pralines and cream. We found out too late from another local that the shop will combine two flavors, so we’re headed back there this weekend for a “Cherie Special”: pralines and cream with salt caramel.

This seems to be the perfect year for corn. Now if the 7′ tall Silver Queen can withstand whatever we get from Hurricane Irene, there will be another post about dinner.

Snacks for Thomas

I loved making treats for my son. J. didn’t have any allergies, but some of his friends had to avoid peanuts and it was just easier to discover all the wonderful things I could make without: snacks with fruit, seeds, grain, oats and brown sugar. Occasionally there might be a chocolate chip or three, golden raisins, dried blueberries, good times! Now our friend Thomas is newly peanut-free and we’re happy to contribute.

I don’t have a picture for either of the recipes, so here’s a photo of the Boy, snacking.

Brown Bag Banana Bars, adapted from the King Arthur Flour cookbook

1/2 cup butter, 2/3 cup brown sugar, 1 egg, 1 tsp. vanilla,3 ripe bananas

1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat flour,  1/4 cup cornmeal, 2 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. salt, 2 tbsp. poppy seeds, 3/4 cup raisins (I like the look of golden raisins. Experiment with softened dried blueberries, too.)

In the bowl of a mixer, cream the butter and sugar and add the egg and vanilla. Mash the bananas (which will make about 1-1/2 cups) and stir them in. Combine the flours, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and poppyseeds and stir into creamed mixture until all blended. Add the raisins. Spread in a greased 13 x 9 inch baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, until the edges are golden. Cool on a rack and cut into bars. Makes 3 dozen bars.



Ingredients: 3/4 cup all-purpose flour, 3/4 cup whole-wheat flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 3 tablespoons packed brown sugar, 1/2 cup rolled oats (not quick-cooking), 1/2 cup raisins or dried cherries, 2 teaspoons fennel seed (optional), 3 tablespoons  butter, melted, 1 large egg, lightly beaten, 1 cup buttermilk. (After you get a feel for these you can really load them up with fruit: fresh raspberries and blueberries with plumped raisins, chunks of papaya or peach, dates, really just about anything.)

Directions; Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder, salt, brown sugar, oats, raisins, and fennel seed, if using. In a small bowl, whisk together butter, egg, and buttermilk until combined, then add to flour mixture. Stir until batter is evenly moistened (do not overmix). Drop batter by 1/3 cupfuls, 2 inches apart, onto a greased baking sheet. I use the Silpat for these, because they can be a little sticky. Bake until golden brown, 15 minutes, rotating sheet halfway through. Let scones cool on a wire rack, 5 minutes.



Night off

My family is on the road tonight and it’s been a long day, so instead of doing anything productive I’m sitting at the kitchen table reading old cookbooks. I’m learning about chicken and dumplings, the proper use of marjoram with fish (don’t over do it), all the various uses of lard and how to roll out pie crust in the 1860’s. I found this bill being used as a bookmark in the pie section and had admire the fine copperplate hand of the person making out a list of gas fixture parts for great grandfather Miller’s wife’s father in NYC.

Wikipedia Commons has a photo of a display of Archer and Pancoast chandeliers – very impressive! I’ll keep reading, and see what else I run across.