Beating Up the Answers to Life and Death

baking, chocolate chip cookies, the answers to life and deathThe day begins with anticipation, which makes me chuckle.

Gone is the time when I looked forward to a young man arriving at the doorstep for a date. Now, I’m anxious for the arrival of a 7-year-old boy and hours of Uno and giggles.

Sure enough, 90 minutes into my grandson’s visit, the score is Madre 540, genius boy 35.

The winner is the one with the lowest score.

This kid is killing me, particularly as he rubs his hands before each new game and says gleefully, “The cards just love me, Madre,” with a shrug and a wink. Continue reading

Non Random Acts of Kindness

karen-sanderson-word-shark-blog-graphicThis past weekend, I brought the wrong cookies to my mother, and I attended a Writers’ Conference in Delaware.

Believe it or not, these two disparate comments belong together.

Flattered to be invited to attend and speak at the  Word Shark Writing Conference organized by Karen Sanderson, editor, writer and blogger, I accepted after realizing I could combine the trip with a visit to my mom, who lives just a half hour away.

A few days before the conference, I worked on my presentation while also baking my mother’s favorite chocolate chip butterscotch oatmeal bars.  My mom doesn’t have a big sweet tooth, but for some reason she absolutely loves my bars.

writing, cookies, antique plateAt 5:30 a.m. on the day of my long train ride to Delaware, I grabbed the special bars from the freezer, where I had stored them. Seven hours later I gratefully unloaded my bag with the special treats, basking in my mom’s gratefulness.

But as I pulled the bars out of their freezer bag onto one of her antique flowery dainty china plates, I gasped. Continue reading

The Simplest Hardest Cake in the World

love, birthdayWhen we’re first in love, we’ll do just about anything for the new apple in our eye.

Even bake a cake. A cake from a 100-year-old recipe.

At least, that’s what I grumbled lo those many years ago when I began to date the man I now call my guy.

We met in September. He lived in one state, I lived in another, so we dated by commute. But by the end of November, he asked to stay for a weekend in mid-December. I said yes, and in the next breath he said, “Oh, and by the way, it’s my birthday.”

I skipped only one beat and said, “I’ll take you out for dinner.”

He skipped no beats when replying, “Um, what I’d really like is my grandmother’s birthday cake.”


Turns out, since my guy was a little boy, his mom made him a cake from a recipe his grandmother discovered long ago in an old magazine. My guy loved that cake, and wondered if I’d like to bake it for his birthday.

Before I could say, “NO,” I opened my mailbox to discover a sweet love letter, with a yellowed piece of thin paper inside: the recipe for ye old Ski Cake.”cake, grandmother's recipe, birthday

The day before he arrived for his weekend visit, I followed the directions to the last teaspoon, creaming the butter and sugar while “working in” the milk and sifted flour (back in the grandmother’s days, the cook had to sift her own flour). I beat the egg whites and made a meringue and folded it into the cake, per instructions. As easy as ….cake.

Granted, as soon as I took it out of the oven it flattened half its size, but still, I figured that’s how cakes looked in the olden days.

I frosted and set it before my dimpled date on his birthday, and with bated breath waited for him to take a bite.

He bit, and he chewed, and chewed and chewed, before he finally swallowed. Twice.

Averting my eyes, he said, “Delicious.”

I took a bite. The cake was as hard as a rock and tasted like stone.

Despite my failure, we married within a year, and on his next birthday, I tried again.

With the same results.

On our third anniversary, I had a new oven in a different state with a state-of-the-art mixer.

But the same results.

A week before our fourth anniversary, I called my guy’s mom and admitted my dilemma.

“I follow the old recipe exactly, each time, and each time, it’s a bust!” I moaned.

A small effervescent bubble popped between the phone lines. A few seconds after the pop I realized the noise was my mother-in-law’s chuckle.

baking, cake, birthday, ingredients“No one can make that recipe work,” the sweet woman explained. “On his birthdays, I’d race to the store and buy a Betty Crocker white cake mix. He never knew the difference.”

I didn’t find it as funny as she did, but you can be damn sure that I ran to the store and bought that cake mix, and the night before his birthday, in secret, baked the best Ski Cake my guy had ever tasted.

He said so.

And every December, he enjoys my home-baked, best simplest hardest birthday cake in the world.

birthday cake, recipe, Betty Crocker

Ski Cake

As Easy As Peanut Butter and Jelly

peanut butter and jelly, mothers and daughters, family, breakfastWe are always children to our parents.

No matter our age.

I find that comforting.

This past week I flew across country to visit my mom. I have adult children now. I have grandchildren, but my mom waits on me as if I’m still her (young) child whom she must care for and nurture.

You know how tenderly we parents watch over our 3-year- old, our 11-year-old, our 16 and 20-year-old? Well, guess what? We do the same when they’re 29, and 45, and yes, even older.

“I bought a wheat bagel for your breakfast, just what you like,” my mom chirps at 8 a.m. our first morning. I don’t eat bagels. I munch on wheat toast with organic peanut butter and blueberry jam every morning, but I so appreciate the thought that I slice the (just thawed) bagel and search for the toaster.

wheat bagel, breakfast

“I don’t own a toaster,” Mom explains five minutes into my opening and closing cabinets.

“Oh.” I turn on the oven to Broil.

“I’ve never used Broil. Do you think it works?” Mom asks, her voice tinged with wonder and curiosity.

I never use Broil either, at least not for toasting bread, so we stand in front of the oven and wait for four minutes.

I open the door. Bagel’s still soft.

Mom rinses some blueberries and raspberries, throws a few on her cereal, and makes me a bowl. “Sit down and eat,” she demands. “I’ll watch the bagel.”

I ignore her and open the oven – bagel’s still soft.

She pours milk into her bowl and I order her: “Eat before your cereal gets mushy!” She ignores me, and we check the oven.

Bagel’s still soft.

Simultaneously, we hit the Broil button off, and then I select Bake at 450 degrees. “Really, Mom, start breakfast. I’ll be right there.”

Mom stares longingly at her now soggy shredded wheat waiting for her on the dining room table but says, “Let me get the peanut butter out for your bagel,” as if I can’t reach up to the cabinet and pull out the Jiffy jar.

I check the bagel – it’s actually getting a little toasted. Nonchalantly I ask, “Do you have some jam?” but inwardly kick myself as soon as the words are out of my mouth.

Crestfallen, she opens the refrigerator and responds, “How about Seville Orange Marmalade?”

“Um, no, I really don’t like marmalade.”

“How can you NOT like marmalade? Here, try it.”

I hate marmalade. Don’t know why, but I have since I was a kid. So like a kid, I shake my head no. I probably pout too.

Mom pulls out another jar. “Oh, here’s Apricot Preserves.”

whole wheat bage, peanut butter, breakfast“Isn’t that like marmalade?” I ask. By now, I’ve pulled out the crispy browned bagel and start spreading it with peanut butter.

“Try it!”

“I really don’t…”

A spoon with some apricot preserves is suddenly swung in front of me, so I place a smidgen on my bagel and take one bite, making a face. “Nope, don’t like it. I’m fine with just peanut butter. Now, let’s eat.”

Her head is still in the refrigerator. “Aha! Red Current Jelly! Want to try that?”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

I walk to the table with my plate of, by now, cold toasted bagel. “Mom – come on.”

She makes a noise and produces another glass bottle from the refrigerator. “Look! Fig Butter. That could taste good…?”

“Why the heck do you have fig butter?”

She shrugs. “I bought it for a recipe. Umm, that could have been quite a while ago.”

I give her a peanut buttery smile. “Join me.” Her cereal is now indistinguishable from overcooked oatmeal that is dotted with some red and blue berries.

Giving up, my mom sits down at her place, only to pop up with an excited exclamation. She races back to the refrigerator and presents me with her find:


I groan, “Noooooooooooooo.”

She shrugs.

I begin to laugh so hard I can’t take another bite of baked bagel.

How wonderful is it to have a mom who still treats you like her special little girl, the daughter she still wants to keep happy?

But still, I don’t touch the cherry pie jelly.

My mom, making me dinner as I watch and admire.

My mom, making me dinner and still taking care of me.

FIVE-Minute Wonder

timer, time, five minutesI only have five minutes to bake.

Now, who can make scrumptious, tasty chocolate chip butterscotch oatmeal bars in five minutes? Not I, but that fact has never stopped me. Because I always try to fit in too many things in too little time. And then I whine, “Why can’t I get everything done?”

Nice, the way I psychoanalyze myself, I decide, as I soften the butter and pour in 1½ cups of white sugar, mix, then add ½ cup of brown sugar. The purple mixer, a sweet Christmas gift from my son and his wife, whirrs along like the hummingbirds outside our window. hummingbird, time, baking

Until we moved back here to the temperate climate of the bay area, I’d never heard the soft buzz of the hummingbirds’ wings as they compete for the sugar water in our feeder. Hard to replicate in words or even human sounds. How to describe? Like a hundred bees racing by my ear, only without the buzz. No, that doesn’t do it. It’s a hum as indescribable as the sound of a mixer’s beaters swooshing in the creamy butter/sugar blend.

I watch another hummer whiz past as I crack in one egg, then the other. Of course, I cogitate; my son had ulterior motives for giving me a new beater for Christmas. He loves my cookies. And he’s smart, I’ll hand it to him. He moans with delight and appreciation every time I bring him a new batch of chocolate cookies or, his favorite, my ‘forgotten cookies.’

Shoot! Speaking of forgotten, I am now 2 minutes late for my yoga class. I add another egg and a teaspoon of vanilla. The smell of the extract gives me a sense of serenity usually experienced after an hour of yogic gyrations. Total nirvana. Funny, how one of the synonyms for vanilla is ‘bland” or ‘plain.” Vanilla is one of the finest aromas in the world – up there with honeysuckle or the ocean. ocean, time, yoga

Ocean! Oh no, I promised my brother I’d send him the pictures from our summer seashore vacation. Has it really been a month since then? Where’d the time go? I almost sent those photos two weeks ago, but I got immersed in writing some new chapters of my book, and visiting our Berkeley grandkids, and my ‘day job,’ and our four out-of-town visitors in the past month.

I measure 2 ¼ cups of flour and slowly add it into the bowl, attempting to not sneeze as the white powder tries to escape the impending merger.

Speaking of merging, my daughter calls, interrupting the cookie making, and talks about the latest ultrasound. She and her husband merged again, and a third child is on the way. How the hell did I become a grandmother of five, soon six? Last time I looked, I was tucking our children to bed after reading them the fourth chapter of The Witch, the Lion and the Wardrobe.

Oh damn. I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning again. My wardrobe is suffering for it – will I need to wear the same blouse from three days ago? Horrors.

The mixer moans and I remember that I’m beating the hell out of my concoction. Quickly, I add the oatmeal and the chips. I’ve missed yoga, I’ll have to add a load of clothes to the washing machine now, and the potatoes are bubbling for the casserole tonight. Where was I?

Ah yes, five minutes to get everything done. I glance up at the clock. Well, I only have five minutes now before I need to….The dog hits his head against my arm. “Feed me,” he says, “Now.”

“Henry, it’s too early!” I tell him with a twinge of sympathy. But I glance up at the clock. Twenty minutes past his dinner time. Where oh where did those five minutes go?

cookies, chocolate chip bars, time, baking