Meadow

In the quiet of a late winter morning, a battalion of height-fearless commandoes, equipped with chainsaws, brush cutters, and chippers, descended upon our neighborhood.  They had been directed by  Tennessee Gas to eradicate any plant growing within 35 feet of their pipeline, a gas line that begins at the Gulf of Mexico, meanders through the south, up the east coast, through our front yard and on through New England. They gathered on our property and carefully measured out their 35 foot swath, then carved away all trees, limbs, and undergrowth ‘infringing’ on their pipeline. This is their practice every ten years. A helicopter frequently patrols the line, a God-like eye from above, following it’s broad path. Mile after mile, it’s goal is to insure all is safe, and no one is for instance: digging a foundation for a house upon the liquid gas and blowing us all to kingdom come.

Eventually, the men with their chainsaw arsenal, continued the onslaught to the east, and peace returned to our street. Surveying the raw clearing, we considered how we could take advantage of this free work to implement an improvement plan. This area has been off limits for landscaping because of the pipeline and wetland regulations, and the invasive phragmites, poison ivy and grapevine have created a weed wonderland.

We decided to start with a clean slate…we cleared everything.

I know I’ve told you before that I’m married to a genius and a brilliant problem solver.   This plot of land is crude, with rocks and dips, and decades of  weed seeds waiting to reclaim the land.

Just in time for spring planting, JJ had 20 pounds of native grass and wildflower seeds  delivered to our front door.

With buckets of hope and seed, we traversed the barren land, letting the seed sift through our fingers, our winter weary minds not imagining how radically the space could be transformed. The seed contained an astonishing nineteen species of native flowers and grasses.DSC_0571
My, my…. summer has only just begun, and look what has sprung up!

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Each flower is heartbreakingly beautiful. The meadow is alight with honey bees, insects and butterflies. It has been transformed into the most exciting part of our yard.

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We’ve been charmed on a daily basis, starry-eyed. Weekends became time for weeding out our former foes before they gained a foothold amongst the wildflowers.

Last weekend, we were concerned with a strange and fragile vine that was threading it’s way through a portion of the meadow. It looked like a thin yellow fishing line, weaving through the plants and tying a stranglehold on them as it cast a net over a dazzling array of fragile beauties.

DSC_0564I contacted our local Audubon, where I met Andy, their resident meadow expert and described what was happening. He told me it was a parasitic plant called Dodder, and that we had to stop it before it bore seed, at which point we would have an epidemic. We had to cut the infested area down, three- quarters of the flowers and remove them.

How often does life remind us that paradise is not here on earth. Darn, for a while I thought we were walking in the Garden of Eden.

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Next year, we will sow the seed again, armed with the wisdom to watch closely for the enemy, and eliminate it early.

 

 

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Bird Treats

The prediction of a big snow ‘event’ wasn’t a ruse after all! Like a child anticipating Christmas morning, I awoke every hour through the night to peer out the window, hoping to see snowflakes. Finally, early this morning, I was able to sleep peacefully, assured by a frosted white backyard, and dreamed of the day soon dawning.DSC_0219

Ordinarily our dogs love the snow, but they were quickly disgruntled by the wind blowing it in their faces. They snuggle up in their beds, or compete, (and sometimes share), position #1 in front of the fireplace. They seem comforted that Mom has ample stores of food, and will reluctantly wait till the storm has past, before heading out on their next adventure.

The birds, however, have no such luxury. The backyard is a hub of juncoes, nuthatch, and sparrows, all jockeying for a turn at the feeders.

The woodpeckers own the front yard feeder, where the suet is hanging.

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I adore snow days. After throwing back some strong cups of coffee, I quickly whipped up breakfast for the birds. I’ve never cooked for birds before.

Several days ago, my adorable brother Peter forwarded a newsletter from The Piedmont Virginian, with helpful tips about preparing for a winter storm. Virginians are expecting two feet of snow tonight, while snow prognosticators in Connecticut, always sticklers for accuracy, have predicted anywhere from three to twenty inches. Feel free to throw your hat into the ring…

The gem amidst all the preparation advice was a recipe for Birdseed Treats…little gourmet cookies for our distressed feathered friends.

Here’s what you’ll need: (compliments of The Virginian)
1 cup organic coconut oil
1/2 cup birdseed
Molds or cookie cutters
Parchment paper

Method:
1. Over low heat, melt coconut oil in a saucepan. (I put the jar in the microwave.)
2. Add birdseed and stir until evenly coated.
3. Transfer to a new bowl and let cool until coconut oil begins to firm. You can also place it into the refrigerator for 15 minutes until it begins to firm.

4. Place a piece of parchment paper on a flat surface along with the molds of your choice (cookie cutters work best). (Some oil seeped out under the molds.)
5. Place birdseed mixture into the molds, pressing firmly, and allow to set up for 5 minutes. Carefully remove them from the molds and place them back on the parchment paper. (JJ wisely made the holes with a skewer, while still in their molds, then using his exquisite fly tying skills, expertly attached the string.)DSC_0210
6. Poke small holes through the molds for hanging string. Once completely set, add string and hang! (We found it best to refrigerate again briefly before hanging.)

DSC_0211As you remove these from the molds, your hands will be coated in the rich coconut oil- a perfect balm for your hands before facing the snow shovelling.

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Now it’s our turn for breakfast.

 

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Diet

DSC_0199Shortly before Christmas, I stumbled upon a book championing vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans as the cornerstone of a healthy, disease-preventing diet. This isn’t exactly breaking news…my Mama told me long ago…but with all the prepared foods we ingest because of convenience and all the stress in our lives, rather than cooking real food ourselves, a little prodding helps.

In the book, How Not To Die, by Michael Greger, M.D., I was impressed by the reams of research he had combed through, examining the top ten deadly diseases, and showing how our diets might be the building blocks of them.

I couldn’t think of a better Christmas gift for my family.51pSVdCZdPL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

The title, which is a bit more grim reaper than Santa Claus, and spelled out in cryptic lettuce letters, looked more like a murderous thriller than a manifesto for optimal health.

I could imagine everyone gathered around the tree Christmas morning, joyful and tickled about the new tie, gold toe socks or cozy flannel jammies, and then, rumpa-tum-tum, unwrapping an uplifting book about preventing death.

Then the chorus, “oh Mom, you shouldn’t have!”

So…I’ve kept the book to myself, my little Sherlock Holmes-turned-chef – secret, playing the good villain who sneaks more and more fruits and vegetables into our meals.

It’s an important, life-changing book, deserving everyone’s attention, that isn’t destined to become another failed new year’s resolution.

From heart disease, our number one killer, to breast and colon cancer, Dr Greger recommends ways to strengthen our bodies defense through diet. It’s practical, sensible, and not that difficult.

I’ve long been suspicious of eating fruits out of season, preferring in-season and ‘local’ produce, but the benefits of a steady portion of both far outweigh my reservations.

One word of warning: too many fruits and vegetables without the buffer of grains and beans, was very hard on my tummy. Our momma’s also warned us: “Everything in moderation.”

Turns out they were a lot wiser than we thought…

 

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Present

What did you get for Christmas? I received a cloning device.

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For me, cloning is not a good word. A box was delivered to our home from someone in New Mexico. I didn’t know the sender. I opened the box and inside was something called a Clone King. I imagined a lab in New Mexico cloning sheep, like that poor little lamb born in Scotland, called Dolly.

Unknown-1I want nothing to do with cloning. Back in 1996, I thought Dolly was a frightening monster in sheep’s clothing. I boxed up the contraption and hid it in a closet.

After Christmas, my brother-in-law wanted to know what I thought of the propagating device he gave me for Christmas…… say what???

Oh! I guess I’m a wee bit suspicious these days.

I hauled my Clone King/Queen down to the Garden Education Center’s greenhouse where I volunteer. I decided I wanted to experiment amongst friends.

The Cloner is a 14″x 14″ plastic box that comes with a small pump, which is centered in the bottom of the box. I attached the spraying device to the pump, (something like a green grocer uses to mist produce), and filled the reservoir with water. The contraption suspends 25 small pots above these spray heads.

I was stepping into a brave new (weird) world of propagating. Ordinarily, I take a cutting, dip it in rooting hormone, then plant it in a propagation mix. This method relies solely on oxygenated water that mists just the plant’s stem.

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I’ve never had success propagating this gorgeous Camellia japonica. It’s not the optimum time to take cuttings, as it’s not yet pushed out any spring growth, but I decided to give the cloner it’s toughest challenge first.

I filled the rest of the cloner pots with Citrus, Bougainvillea, and Hibiscus, and plugged her in.

The sprayers continually mist the stems of the cutting. They are not submerged in water.

In ten to fourteen days, I’ll know if we have clones of the mother plants. I’ll let you know!DSC_0190

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New

The dawning of a new day a is a gift that unwraps gradually. A new year is upon us, spread out like an enormous blank canvas…one that deserves some deep reflection before we start painting.

For the first time, we took down our Christmas tree before January 1st. Winter here in the northeast has been slow to arrive, and the balmy outside temperatures have made it difficult to hang on to the ‘Winter Wonderland’ thing.

With the tinsel and Santa stuffed safely in the attic, our home suddenly became simple and uncomplicated…a perfect atmosphere for fine-tuning goals and aspirations for the new year.

I make big decisions slowly, and I don’t like surprises, (except puppies and kittens), unless I know about them beforehand. I have to try on change until I know in my gut, it makes sense for me.

But new years always involve change, invited or not.

Changes are happening in our town. Some would say time marches on. I wouldn’t.

Demolition signs are appearing with greater frequency. You’re driving down the road, and where a beautiful proud home stood yesterday, now there is the shock of nothing…an empty hole. This is followed by a year of frantic activity, watching something cold as a stone rise from the ashes.

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Here is the original 1770’s home.

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Then the demolition site, and now, below, an enormous house.

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Below, a graceful and inviting entry that led to a beautiful home that disappeared overnight.

 

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Here’s what replaced it. Very new.

 

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DSC_0174I’ve always admired this Greek Revival home from the 1840’s.  Charming and beautiful, and now with a Demolition sign at it’s front door.

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When did we, as a town, maybe even a society, decide history and tradition are not as good as “new”? It’s even worse when the landmarks of who we were, and where we came from, disappear without a whisper.

You can build a house, but you can only make a home. The developments so powerfully depicted in Spielberg’s ET and Poltergeist, were sad evidence of this. Rows and rows of identical houses. No yards, no trees.

I never want to live in a place like that.

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Raptors

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The Audubon is a nature center in Sharon, Connecticut, named after the famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon. It is one of five in the State, with a particular focus and devotion to non-releasable animals, (a generally nice way of say injured). These beautiful creatures give the public the rare pleasure of seeing them up close, while learning about them and how to better care for their habitats.

JJ and I leapt at the opportunity to see a few of their raptors, really really close. The animals in their care have been rescued for a variety of reasons, and sadly, will never be  released back into their natural habitat.

The red-tailed hawk above, is called Mandy. Red-tailed hawks are common throughout the world, and can be found in every state here in the US. We often see a pair in our neighborhood, swooping gracefully over the treetops, searching for small rodents, bunny rabbits, and reptiles. They have a distinctive, attention-garnering, shriek. Once in a while I see one perched on a chair near our bird feeder, in a near comical way. I guess when the rodents are scarce, hawks will fill the gap with a song bird or two.

Mandy somehow lost an eye, and was brought to the Audubon hurt and hungry. Since hawks rely on their powerful eyesight for survival, Mandy could no longer fend for herself, and was adopted by the Sharon Nature Center.

She is a large bird but weighs a mere three pounds, due to her light weight feathers and fine hollow bones. She is a wild beauty. Red-tailed hawks are a popular choice among falconers for their ease of training.

DSC_0086This raptor is an American Kestrel named Bob. His favorite foods are grasshoppers and dragonflies. The Audubon has raised him since he arrived on their doorstep as a chick. He’d been found on the ground and thought to be abandoned, but once he was picked up, he could never return and be accepted by his own. We learned that Bob thinks he’s a human being now, literally, and wants nothing to do with birds of his kind. He relies on his fellow humans to care for him, as he never learned to hunt and fend for himself. They advised us, if you should find a chick in the wild, don’t touch it, but alert the local Audubon, and let them decide what’s best.

“Kestrels are ultraviolet sensitive which allows them to visually locate the trails of voles. These small rodents lay scent trails of urine and faeces that reflect UV light, making them visible to the kestrels, particularly in the spring before the scent marks are covered by vegetation.” (Wikipedia)

DSC_0097This is a Great-horned Owl named Baxter. He was hit by a car, which as it turns out is a sadly common occurrence. They’ll swoop down on rodents in the road and miss the oncoming terror. Baxter lost his wing as a result, as well as a slight beak readjustment.. These owls have amazing hearing, allowing them to locate prey more easily. Their flight is silent due to the ruffled edges of their wings, which helps them be especially stealthy hunters. If we think the little tufts of feathers poking out from the top of his head are his ears, we’d be wrong, Those are his ‘horns’.

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This adorable little owl is called Hannah. She is a Saw-whet, weighing in at a dainty 1/4 pound. She too was injured in a car accident. Saw-whets have asymmetrical ears giving them acute hearing to hunt on the darkest nights. The offset of their ears allows them to triangulate their prey in complete darkness. This unusual skill helps them keep our vole/mole/mouse population in check. On a cold winter’s night, if you hear a repetitive whistle like a ‘toot toot toot’, it’s probably a saw-whet owl calling for a mate.

Several months ago my book group read Helen Macdonald’s, H is For Hawk. MacDonald, an experienced falconer, adopted young Mabel, a goshawk, after the death of her father. A goshawk, unlike a red-tailed hawk, is notoriously difficult to tame. MacDonald tells the amazing story of their time together. I recommend it.

The work the Sharon Audubon does is impressive and compassionate, giving our wildlife a second chance after run-ins with a sometimes careless or uninformed public. In our fast-paced world, the creatures of the forest are trying to survive, but find themselves surrounded by more cars and less space.

 

They need all the help we can give them.

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For the Love of the Wild

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Doug Tallamy, the author of  The Living Landscape, spoke recently at our local Audubon Center. Doug is the Professor and Chair of the Entomology and Wildlife Ecology Department at the University of Delaware, and a wonderful speaker and teacher. His compelling books have become my guide, to better understanding how my plant choices dramatically impact local wildlife.

After the lecture and an instructional walk with Doug around the Audubon, I returned home with fresh eyes to inspect our yard, and ruminate about how I might make this place a greater magnet for birds, insects, and butterflies.

Years ago, I designed perennial borders influenced by great English plantswomen such as Penelope Hobhouse and Rosemary Verey. They were pretty gardens planned for textural appeal, harmonious color and seasonal longevity. Over the years, environment and wildlife habitat concerns have influenced my design ethic.  My passion for more natural, wilder spaces has matured, as open spaces are shrinking and growing more sterile, due to development, the overuse of chemicals and over-grazing by animals trying to survive in less space.

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Doug used slides to powerfully illustrate how the choices we make at the garden center, impact the wild things that bring delight to our lives.  One of the slides was a photo of a backyard, and above each plant was superimposed a bird feeder. Plants that provided no food attractive to birds or insects had an empty feeder above them, while some would have a half full feeder, while other feeders were full…a great and simple illustration of where the action is. This image has given me a tangible way to look at trees and shrubs in my own yard, and gauge how supportive they are to the bird and insect life I’m trying to encourage.

Sadly, my Japanese maple has an empty feeder above its pretty little head, while my stately white oak has a feeder that is overflowing. My hydrangea is providing very little for my feathered friends, while my high bush blueberry deserves a gold medal. His books provide data about many plants and will help me think carefully about future plant purchases. While I will never discard my japanese maple, I will ramp up the plants that provide the diversity and sustenance that sustains wildlife.

Doug talked about the layered forest that has a high canopy of trees with understory trees and shrubs in the middle layer, and ground covers blanketing the forest floor. This is a healthy environment resplendent with biodiversity. It abounds with insects supporting a network of birds, amphibians and other wildlife, that need our help, as we hope they will always be there.

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I have lots of plans, but a Winter between us and Spring planting. I’m going to have to hibernate like mama bear.

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Dahlias Adieu

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The frost descended like a cold smothering wind over the weekend, snuffing the life out of the garden. The temperature was on a downhill slide all day, so we rushed to harvest what was left in the vegetable garden, and hauled it to the garage for future feasts.

In spite of the drought, it was a wildly productive year. We were rewarded with record eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes, but I’m daunted by a mountain of green tomatoes. Fried green tomatoes will be on our menu for weeks.

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My triumph this year was a butternut squash vine that grew willy-nilly from the compost, like an unplanned, miraculous pregnancy. It yielded a dozen picture perfect specimens. Every year the compost pile unveils a star. One year, when all the tomato plants succumbed to blight, I had one perfect tomato plant inoculated from harm in the compost pile. I’ve had statuesque avocado trees that I’ve dug out of the compost too, but our anti- tropical climate doesn’t provide a long enough season for them to develop fruit. It fascinates me that it’s not a free for all in the compost, but each year, their is just one prize winning crop.

DSC_0760The vegetable garden is my great love, but dahlias give me joy beyond measure. It’s a miracle these voluptuous flowers begin as sad, gnarly, shriveled tubers.

Choosing which dahlias is the most challenging part of growing them.  JJ, Brooke, and I circled our favorites on a frigid February night – JJ, a fire engine red, called Angels of 7A, so appropriate because he’s eternally grateful to the angels who nursed him back to health up at Yale. Brooke choose a brilliant fuchsia collarette with a striking yellow eye, called Bee Happy.

My favorite, was Mikayla Miranda, a heavenly lavender and blush pink – seen below is this heavenly heap of dahlias.

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Treasures from the garden.

Alas, the time has come to cut off the frosted stems, dig the tubers, and store them for the winter. I choose this variety because my son married his beloved Natalie in May.DSC_0011

My technique for storage: I wash the soil from the roots and leave them on the lawn to dry for a few hours. Then I gather them up, careful to keep the name tags in place, and lay them in their own nest of newspaper for a few days in the garage. When I’m certain the tubers are dry, I lay them on a fresh bed of newspaper, and cover them in peat moss. Lastly, I spritze the peat with what I imagine is holy water, sending them off to sleep until I see them again in the spring.  (I know I am supposed to peek in and have a look at them every six weeks to make sure all is well, but …… that is why I don’t have a horticultural halo!).

One winter night, we will pore over Swan Island’s offerings for 2016, and dream of warm days and the joy of luscious bouquets of dahlias.
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Cooking for Love

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I have been up since the wee hours, cooking JJ comfort food in preparation for a couple lousy days on the sofa, post surgery.

Soup is my elixir for healing and comfort – something we all need quite a lot of on a regular basis, right?

Earlier in the week, I distilled potent broth by simmering a couple fresh chickens with lots of vegetables and herbs. This morning, with the broth all set to go, I prepared his favorite chicken soup. I refrigerated it while we were at the hospital, allowing it’s flavors to meld into something wonderful.

I also made up a batch of Ziti, see smittenkitchen.com.

It was as if I was preparing for a blizzard or the great flood. Surgery on a spouse requires preparedness and stamina. When under duress, I find peace in the measuring, mixing, chopping and sautéing of family favorites.  The aroma wafting from the kitchen makes us feel safe and comforted.

When we returned from the hospital,  JJ consumed five pieces of toast with jam and butter. Then he was ready for a bowl of soup. The surgeon definitely switched his appetite to the ON position.

Meanwhile, after facing down the battle of the day, I ate an unseemly amount of Ziti.

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A a new day dawned and I made his favorite pound cake – delicate and dreamy, slathered with a citrus glaze. This is special, relished on a day when we were on the healing side of a tough procedure, when we have much to be thankful for.

We are out of the woods!

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Buttermilk Bundt Cake with Lemon Glaze

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup vegetable shortening, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon unsalted butter, melted
Pinch of fine salt
INSTRUCTIONS

MAKE THE CAKE Preheat the oven to 
325°. Generously butter a 10-inch Bundt pan and dust with flour. In a medium bowl, whisk the 3 1/2 cups of flour with the salt 
and baking soda.
MAKE THE CAKE In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the 1 1/2 sticks of butter with the shortening at medium-high speed until smooth. Add the granulated sugar and 
beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. At medium speed, beat in the eggs 1 at a time until just incorporated, then beat in the vanilla; scrape down the side of the bowl. Beat in the dry ingredients and buttermilk in 3 alternating batches, starting and ending with the dry ingredients. At low speed, beat in the lemon juice.
MAKE THE CAKE Scrape the batter into the prepared 
Bundt pan and use a spatula to smooth 
the surface. Bake in the middle of the oven 
for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through baking, until 
a toothpick inserted in the center of the 
cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool on 
a rack for 30 minutes, then turn it out on 
a platter or cake stand to cool completely.
MAKE THE GLAZE In a medium bowl, whisk the confectioners’ sugar with 
the lemon zest, lemon juice, butter and 
salt until smooth. Drizzle the glaze over
the top of the cake, letting it drip down 
the sides. Let stand for 20 minutes 
until the glaze is set. Cut the cake into wedges and serve.

This bundt cake is crazy beautiful and statuesque.

I found the recipe in the July 2014 issue of Food and Wine, and it has become a celebratory treat for us, after surviving particularly challenging health issues.

I doubled the recipe for the glaze, so if you too like lots of it, multiply the glaze ingredients times two.If you are not a fan of citrus, leave it out and replace with milk.

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The Ranch at Rock Creek

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It is the tail end of the season here on the ranch in western Montana. The aspens are lighting up the prairie with a golden glow. The nights are cold, daylight is diminishing daily, but the sun burns intensely during the day, as through the lens of a magnifying glass.DSC_0883

JJ loves late season western fishing, so we’re here post labor day…the crowds have pulled out, kids are settled back in school and life is gearing up for whatever old man winter has in store.

But on the ranch, everyone is dedicated to making our stay the most important week of their year. What impresses us most are the wonderful people working here, drawn from all over the country, and beyond.DSC_0875

Just like the mama bear, I’m going back to my den in Connecticut with a new layer of fat.  Thank God I don’t live with a first rate chef. Josh and his first mate, Ben, and all the other people in the kitchen, make every meal a moment of surprise and delight. These guys know how to cook in ways I’ve never dreamed. They cull from local farms and every meal is loaded with freshly picked greens and vegetables, as well as celebrating the beef and elk integral to the livelihood of the region. I’m addicted to a sandwich that is layered with slices of sweet potatIMG_2020o, apple, pickles, onion jam and more, a peculiar melding of ingredients, strange and delicious.

And then there isDSC_0918 Clint, a shy unassuming magician. He makes pastry magic in the kitchen in the dead of night, concocting the best cookies, rolls and breakfast pastries on the planet. Did I mention, we are in the middle of nowhere?

Then there all the other worker bees that make every day better. Juliet, from Lyon, France, lights up the room with her smile and cheer. I want to bring her home. She’s homesick for foods from her upbringing- french cheeses, wine, macarons…treats unknown in the wilds of Montana. We’ll send her a care package once we scour our neck of the woods.

There is Amy, Benjamin and Micah, whose biceps threaten to bust through his cowboy shirt. These people are all searching, like all of us, for meaning, a calling, and a place their heart can call home. DSC_0927

The bears are scary, but produce a wonderful and mysterious air of why we love this place. Without the bears, it would not be the west. The trout are beautiful, and JJ struggles to balance his desire to catch them, and his hope to leave them alone. This place is their home. It’s our blessing that we can share it for a moment, but we have a home too, and it’s time to go.

We were visited by two Bald Eagles today…breathtaking, and I want to believe saying both get out, and thanks for being here.

Unbelievable.

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