The Christmas cake is in the oven

Yes, I know it’s only September but an English Christmas cake takes time to mature. It’s not just your regular fruit cake much ridiculed by families who, in urban legends re-gift the cake every December. No, no. An English Christmas cake is serious business. Perish from your thoughts a shiny round brick studded with green pineapple segments and fluorescent scarlet cherries. That type of cake deserves every rude comment. No, no again. Let’s start with the ingredients. That’s the first challenge – procuring the correct ingredients in a foreign land is not easy. In past years, I have even ordered them from England at enormous cost – dried fruit is very heavy. But I soon decided that by the time Christmas rolls around, not having the exact proportions of sultanas to currants won’t make much difference. The cake uses butter, sugar, flour and eggs and I typically buy organic ingredients the week I decide to make it, so they are as fresh as can be. Candied peel and glace cherries won’t be in the U.S. shops until November, so I buy next year’s later and then the only challenge is remembering where I stashed them. The dried fruit and nuts, along with black treacle, RUM, spices and lemon rind are added at the end and it takes two hands to stir the huge batch of batter. Cedric usually joins me to do the final stir and make a wish. My wish is usually that the cake turns out OK! The cake bakes slowly and for a long time – four and a half hours. The delicious smell starts permeating the halls after the first hour so all my neighbors know I’m baking again.

After the cake has cooled, it gets poked all over with a knitting needle and gets its first slosh of rum. Then for the next three months, every Sunday I feed it more rum. That’s the next challenge. Since the Big R, every day is Sunday, so I might have to get a working friend to text me each Sunday morning, saying, “Wakey, wakey, it’s Sunday and your cake is thirsty!” Christmas week, there’s specific action. By this time, the cake is so soaked with rum it has a hangover and deserves a layer of marzipan all over like a yellow blanket. But first I sieve some apricot jam, warm it slightly and brush it over the surface – that helps the marzipan stick. I try and do a professional job of marzipaning the cake just out of a sense of pride, rolling and measuring carefully to ensure a smooth finish especially along the sides. In reality, no one will ever see it and often I have to patch pieces where I’ve miscalculated the width so it looks like a badly sewn quilt. The best thing about the marzipan is putting little pieces aside for us to enjoy as treats. The marzipan is left to dry for two or three days.

A couple of days before Christmas, it’s time to ice the cake with royal icing, made with icing or confectioner’s sugar mixed with egg whites. I typically add a teaspoon of glycerine if I can find it. It makes the icing a little less brittle. Royal icing can set as hard as concrete. I remember one year going into a pharmacy and asking for glycerine. Oh my goodness, I still recall the consternation on the pharmacist’s face. It was just at the time when several homemade bombs had been detonated and one major ingredient apparently is glycerine. Who knew? The pharmacist called the senior manager and they asked me very seriously what I wanted glycerine for. When I explained it was for royal icing on the Christmas cake, they visibly relaxed. The icing covers the patchwork marzipan and I tap a flat spatula all over to make it look like snow. On Christmas Eve, the grand cake-cutting takes place and we anxiously await the decision on whether it’s a good vintage or not.

I’ve been making the cake for as long as we’ve been married and use the same trusted recipe that I tore out of a cookbook that evidently didn’t make the cut on one of our international moves. After the flurry of hurricane activity last week when we prepared a suitcase in case we evacuated, I realize now that I forgot a very important item … the Christmas cake recipe. Next time, that will definitely be included. Merry Christmas!

Hummers rule!

You’ve got to hand it to these ferocious firecrackers! Hurricane-force winds and a state of emergency in every county in Georgia, didn’t stop our hummingbirds from swooping, fighting, defending territory and perching, albeit gripping on by their toenails. In defiance of the Georgia governor’s declaration to hunker down, our hummers continued life as normal. With Hurricane Irma moving north from Florida and even though it had been downgraded to a tropical storm, we brought all our porch paraphernalia inside. A sturdy patio chair could do major damage to a window and the wind gusts were strong enough to lift flower pots over railings. So, Sunday night after dark, the three feeders came inside. Early Monday morning, with the wind roaring and the rain already pounding, I heard the chatter of annoyed hummers looking for their breakfast. I felt so sorry for them. I grabbed the feeders, opened the patio door and carefully hung them back up. I got soaked but it was the right thing to do. If they could brave the pouring rain, it was the least I could do.

All day they drank nectar. All day I felt happy. I still don’t understand how such a tiny creature functions but I know it’s a miracle. We have so many hummingbirds that neighbors can see them from the street and enjoy watching them. Either the hummers are getting braver, or we are getting really good at remaining motionless when the sound of an electric toothbrush whirrs two inches away from our noses. This morning, I remembered I had forgotten to replenish one of the feeders last night, so out I padded as soon as I woke up and filled it. Heaven forbid a hummer had to wait for breakfast.

Too busy to blog

It’s true, it’s true. Everything you hear about retirees being far busier than they were before is totally true. I got a form letter from Social Security this week asking me if I anticipated earning any wages for the balance of the year. That made me laugh out loud. You have got to be kidding – I don’t have time to go out to work! There’s ginger to be candied, okra to be roasted, hummingbird feeders to be filled, seeds to be watered. And coming up there’ll be the Christmas cake to be made and that’s a whole-day production. More of that in a later blog.

Back to the ginger – what fun! It was in my week’s basket from Fresh Harvest. Who knew that fresh ginger is soft and almost pink? The stuff in the grocery store is probably three months old. I sliced it thinly and simmered it in sugar and water; lay the slices on a rack to dry; and then coated them in more sugar. It left me with a delicious syrup for ice cream or yogurt. A huge success and I have more coming in this week’s basket. The okra was interesting. I roasted it with olive oil and thyme. I wasn’t sure if I liked okra or not. Cedric pronounced it absolutely revolting, on a par with Brussels sprouts, which he has disliked since he was a child. My Southern belle neighbor said it was delicious so I’m going with her verdict.

The hummingbirds are going crazy fueling up before they migrate. I have two feeders and the hummers bicker and dive-bomb each other, squabbling like children. I wish they would learn that there’s plenty for all and they waste a lot of energy trying to prevent each other feeding. When there are two hummers at one feeder, they must be a married couple or maybe mother and baby. There are so many swooping on our porch that the other day I covered my eyes with my hand and peeped through the cracks between my fingers because one was hovering so close and staring at me that I thought it might poke me in the eye. What a marvel of engineering and a miracle of creation.

My garden plot is full of seeds in neat little rows. But there’s one problem. I carefully drew out a diagram of what I planted according to the stakes I measured out. But when I stepped back and said “ta-da” I had more rows of seeds than indicated on my diagram so something went awry somewhere and I will be getting a surprise in the fall. Within two days of planting, some seeds were already sprouting and I felt I had given birth. I know I have cabbage, kale, spinach, beets and carrots. Plus, one butternut squash that is already two inches high. And I inherited a blackberry vine that looks very healthy and hopefully will fruit soon.

And then there’s a quilt top I’m making. It’s called Gypsy Wife – you can look it up. I have a self-imposed challenge of using only scraps and fabric that I already have. For a quilter, that’s almost being mean! It’s like a jigsaw puzzle finding enough pieces to make each block. A quilt is made up of blocks that are sewn together to make the quilt top. The Gypsy Wife has 73 blocks that range from 2.5 inches to 10 inches square and 55 strips running vertically. I’ve made all the blocks and now am trying to get my head round the strips that have to continue down the quilt in consecutive rows even when there’s a block in the way. Now you understand why my blogging has taken a backseat. Gotta run – lots to do!

Three-month check-in

It’s been three months since the Big R. Three months is my metaphoric line in the sand so let’s see how I’m doing in terms of successes and failures. Failures first. NONE – just a few delays. I have not investigated piano teachers yet so learning to play the piano has moved down the list. Dress code and personal style: not exactly a failure but wearing anything except shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops and applying lipstick and mascara every day has totally fallen off the priority list. I’ve always advocated getting rid of any item of clothing that I haven’t worn for a season. That would mean discarding my entire summer wardrobe, so I’ll give that a reprieve this year.

As for successes: many, many. When I look at my to-do list, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve sorted, pruned and purged. I live in fear of being overtaken by stuff but it’s so hard to get rid of hundreds of useful plastic carrier bags. I was exceptionally brave, however, and now just have one bag of bags. One of my favorite books is My Brother’s Keeper by Marcia Davenport. It’s based on one of those sad stories that hits the news stands every so often – people, very often siblings, accumulate so much stuff that it takes over. They live in rooms filled from floor to ceiling with stuff, sometimes with tunnels giving the only access between rooms. This was another of my mother’s favorite books and I read it first when I was young and now have two copies at home (yes, I need both copies) and have reread it many times. I devour and save news articles on these incidences, which is strangely ironic as I’m just keeping hold of more stuff, albeit it newspaper cuttings. In my heart of hearts, I dread ending up like one of those sad individuals but whenever I get rid of something, I need it often 24 hours later – honest!

I’ve posted already about knitting egg cozies. I’ve also made preserved lemons. Scrub lemons (Meyer are best), quarter them but not all the way, stuff with salt and place in a jar; squeeze more lemons to cover with juice and leave for several weeks. I’ve been using them to perk up salads and they are delicious with roasted vegetables. Just use the rind after rinsing off the salt. I have homemade vanilla extract maturing. Take vanilla pods, cut them lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place those and the pods in a jar of vodka. When I bought the vodka, I made sure everyone heard I was using it for cooking … I could see their expressions: Yeah, right!! That will be ready in another week or so. I’m making another quilt, but this time just out of scraps and fabric that I have. It’s harder than I thought it would be as often there’s not quite enough of one fabric for the block I planned to make. I’ve also used up almost all of my bobbin thread – quilters will understand this. When you sew, you wind a bobbin with the same thread you plan to use in the sewing machine, meaning you end up with many, many bobbins of assorted thread that just sit there over the years. What a sense of accomplishment to see all those empty bobbins in the box!

I’ve always enjoyed baking and it’s lovely to be able to bake bread any day of the week and not just at the weekend. I bought a beautiful cast iron shortbread pan so each piece has a different pattern, including a flower, hummingbird, thistle and beehive. Shortbread is easy – 2 sticks of butter creamed with 1 cup confectioner’s sugar; add 2 cups plain flour. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes or so. I’m turning into a cooking blogger!

Another success is my weekly farm produce delivery. I didn’t have to wait for retirement as they will leave the box at the door, but I wanted to be home to take delivery each Thursday if possible. The box comes from Fresh Harvest and I love what they are doing for the farming community. They have a lot of different box options and it’s very flexible. You can put a hold on delivery for a few weeks, or skip a week. And each week when they tell you what will be in your box, you have the option to customize and swap products. The produce is so fresh that it lasts much longer than supermarket produce. Even after a week, the lettuce is still crisp, although we usually finish everything within a week. I’m especially enjoying the fairy eggplant, tomatoes and mini watermelon this week. I got a bag of hot peppers and those are pickling in the fridge as I wasn’t sure what else to do with them. It’s fun to open the box because when Thursday rolls around, I’ve forgotten what’s coming, so every Thursday is like Christmas morning. The best part is Willis, who delivers. He’s 6 foot 9 inches of Georgia farm boy with tousled red hair drawn up in a man bun. He has to duck to get in the door and I think he finds me and my accent as fascinating as I find him. He knows I’ll be waiting on the porch and he waves when he gets out of his delivery truck. My heart melts!

Overall ranking for the Big R: A PLUS! The one question that people ask me when I tell them I recently retired is: What’s the best thing about retirement? My answer remains: Not having to wake up with the alarm each morning. It was definitely worth waiting for and I’m still reveling in the luxury of coffee in bed each morning, reading my latest book, and with Savannah snuggled up against my knees. If it was up to her, we’d stay in bed until noon. Now, that’s a plan – who’s gonna stop me?

Where’s a juicy dead bug when I need one?

I’m sharing the porch with a porch mate – he (she?) is a a handsome lizard with a fluorescent blue tail. He’s not very long – maybe three inches nose to tail tip. You know that if you grab the tail, it will come off, don’t you. And grow again. I spent a lot of time as a child trying, and sometimes succeeding, in stepping on a lizard’s tail. That and chasing crabs on the beach – the secret to crab catching is to remember that they run sideways, not forwards or backwards. The lizard lives in the bricks and comes out through the cracks. This morning, I noticed him running along the window ledge when I was drinking my coffee on the porch. When he ran back to his lair, I’m sure he had a bug in his mouth. I was disappointed that I must have looked away the moment he caught the bug. So, now was my chance to do some scientific research. I could see his nose and flickering tongue in the crack. So I interrupt myself, tear myself away from coffee and newspaper and search the porch for a bug, preferably dead, so that I can pick it up. I find a bug and it is dead as can be – so dead it is practically desiccated and the only way I know it’s some sort of beetle is because it has little legs, poor thing. I place it on the window sill and sit back down to wait. And I wait. I see the flickering tongue. I push the bug a little closer to the crack. No deal. Hmmm, maybe he’s a smart lizard. I see him coming out of another crack closer to the floor. So I flick the bug onto the floor. Then I go back inside to do something domestic – transfer the laundry into the drier or something. When I come out, THE BUG HAS GONE! Now, I know it could have been blown over the railing by the wind, but I don’t think so – it’s still with no wind. I’ve missed the action again. So I go back to hunting for another bug – moving flower pots and watering cans. I guess the porch is cleaner than I thought, but eventually I find something that looks like a bug and I start over. I place the bug near the first crack and stare for a long time and don’t dare blink. Nothing. He must be sleeping off the meal. I’ll try again tomorrow – yep, I obviously have too much time on my hands.

Egg cozies and other essentials

The Big R has given me the gift of time and I get to spend that time on important projects such as knitting egg cozies, preserving lemons, making vanilla extract and lining drawers. Everyone knows that if you don’t line kitchen drawers within one month of moving to a new place, it’s one of those projects that realistically never gets done – unless one retires!

Let’s start with the egg cozies. Every respectable soft-boiled egg needs an egg cozy. Cozies are the little hats that keep one egg warm while the other is being eaten with toast soldiers because one never eats just a single soft-boiled egg. We have two linen cozies that match our breakfast china (yep!), and making a set for the second egg has been on my to-do list for years. We have one cozy that was probably knitted by Cedric’s mother but it’s very small, proof that everything in the last 50 years has simply got bigger. We even have some egg cups that belonged to Cedric’s parents, but our super-sized eggs perch on the opening and threaten to topple off as soon as you approach with a spoon. I replaced our egg cups recently – whopper-sized ones that fit the eggs now laid by modern chickens. The Big R means we often have time for soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. And because many Americans don’t know what I’m talking about, here are the instructions:

Bring water to boil in a medium-sized saucepan. For two people, remove four eggs from refrigerator – that’s in the U.S. In England, it’s more common not to refrigerate eggs and one can buy cute wooden egg holders to keep on the kitchen counter. In the U.S., as soon as an egg pops out, it gets shampooed. (I’m not making this up.) The soap removes the natural barrier on the egg shell, which makes the egg more susceptible to bacteria, which is why U.S. eggs are generally refrigerated. Pierce the bottom of the egg – the rounder end – with an egg piercer. These are little gadgets with a pin that pierces the shell and lets out any air so that when the air expands, it won’t crack the shell. (Again, I’m not making this up.) I often add a few shakes of bicarbonate of soda to the water. That’s an old wives’ tale but apparently if there’s a crack, it stops the egg white from seeping out. My mother always lit a match, blew it out and dropped the match into the water and I do that as well. If an egg has a faint crack, I’ll cover it with Scotch tape – that works, I promise.

Slowly lower your pricked eggs into the water, bring back to the boil and reduce heat to low simmer – that means just a few bubbles now and then. Now comes the tricky part. How long do you boil an egg? I time them for six minutes for mine and seven minutes for Cedric’s. I like my yolks very soft and he prefers them a bit firmer. It’s always a happy surprise when they are a perfect consistency. Remove from the water, place in the egg cup and pop the cozy on top. Meanwhile, you have made toast and put salt on the table. For anyone raised eating soft-boiled eggs, the next step is easy. For foreigners, it takes some practice – like many things. For example, I’m great at handling soft-boiled eggs, but I can’t use chopsticks – that’s also on my to-do list and I heard you can buy versions with a rubber band on the end to make it easier to wield them. I digress – back to the eggs. With a small teaspoon, softly crack the top of the egg and gently remove the top half-inch or so. That reveals enough egg to start. Pour some salt on the edge of the plate, place the back of the spoon on the little mound of salt, some grains should adhere to it, and break the yolk with your spoon, carefully, without letting it flood over the edge of the egg. Butter the toast and cut it into strips – those are the soldiers. Poke the soldiers into the yolk – YUM! When one finishes one egg, it’s traditional to turn the empty egg shell upside down in the egg cup and shout, “I don’t want my egg!” At which your mother will reprimand you and then you take your spoon and whack the empty shell so that it caves in. Repeat above steps with second egg.

See below for picture of one of the new egg cozies. I’ll talk more about the other projects next time, but I leave you with this little ditty, which should be sung very loud:

How does a hen know the size of an egg cup when she lays her egg?

With no egg cup beside her, nothing whatever to guide her?

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