The Sukkah Experiment

Less than twenty-four hours to Sukkot, and I have no sukkah.  What I have is a cabana frame with no way to attach the Chinese silver grass (and no promise the frame will support the weight) and no way to affix the sheets I plan on using as curtains.  Oh, I also have a mother who says, “You know I like things elaborate,” and “I just ran out of time to make the curtains.”  Funny how we’re back to using the sheets I suggested in the first place and she dismissed as hillbilly.

This is round two of building a sukkah for the Gibson Family.  You’ll recall last year’s efforts (Learning Curve) were redneck at best.  We’ve come a long way since then, and we’ve learned a few things.  Such as sukkahs need four walls and branches still attached to the tree don’t count.  Still, we did our best, and I truly believe Adonai was honored by our efforts.  This year, I’m thinking He might be grading on a tougher curve, and we’re getting points checked off for lack of preparedness.

You see, I had this all planned out on Monday when Mom and I went to buy the PVC pipe, three-way elbows, and the shower curtain clips.  We were on our way to Home Depot and ended up everywhere except Home Depot.  I could have had this finished Monday evening and been peacefully admiring my sukkah in anticipation of sundown Wednesday.  Instead, I’m anticipating watching my mother weave paracord around the top of the frame (at minus five-foot-short, I have no idea how she’s going to reach the top of the ten-foot-plus, peaked cabana frame) probably while standing on a step ladder (I’m not sure we own one anymore) placed on uneven ground.  I’m having flashbacks to Mom and Dad fighting over the set-up of…well, just about everything.

And the grasses still need cut down.  With a reciprocating saw.  I know we own one of those, but I have absolutely no idea what it looks like or where it is.  Dad is supposed to help me with this, but then I wonder who will watch Mom while she’s weaving paracord on a ladder?  This is not going well.  At least Dad should be sufficiently occupied cutting grasses so as not to pick a fight with Mom.  And nobody better pick a fight with me because I have a headache already.  Is it too early in the day for a glass of bourbon?

Here’s the kicker:  we have until sundown this evening to complete this, except Mom wants to eats dinner in the sukkah as a family.  My husband, William, leaves for work at 3:30 PM.  So, we have roughly four and a half hours to get this thing ready.  I’m thinking we should have completed the sukkah today, enjoyed some coffee, tea, and cake in it, and then tomorrow when husband’s vacation starts, enjoy dinner as a family.  Am I the only person who sees this spiraling out of control?

Don’t even get me started on dinner.  Mom asked what I planned on making for the first evening.  This is code for “I’m buying the cabana frame, so you make dinner.”  Not a problem at all.  Really.  I figured we’d have the sukkah up by Monday evening anyhow, so I’d be free to prepare food.  Then she texts me with a picture of the marinara sauce she’s making for dinner.  I hadn’t even suggested a menu, and already she nixed it.  Again, not a problem.  We like marinara over spaghetti, and I have back-up sauce in case our teenager snarls his nose at it.

It’s anyone’s guess how this is going to go off.  I know there are a few details we still aren’t going to get right, but like life in general, Adonai gives us time to grow.  It’s anyone’s guess whether it’s His voice or mother’s in my head saying, “Have a little faith.”

‘Til Death Us Do Part

In the summer of 1964, Dr. John Welles and Bea Turner attended the wedding of a couple that never expected to marry. Many hardships had paved the way to the happy couple’s nuptials, but they put every adversity behind them as they celebrated their special day. Everything that came before their marriage and whatever would come after only served to strengthen the bond that existed between two people truly in love. All of Addison came out to join in the joyous occasion making it a day the bride and groom would never forget.

The wedding cake I had in mind for the couple had to be completely homemade. Box mixes wouldn’t do, and the grandiose cakes created by bakers to satisfy the whims of brides today wouldn’t be believable. Unfortunately, neither my mother nor I had a recipe for a homemade white cake. Scandalous, I know.

My Internet research led me to a website with a cake that, from the recipe, looked as if it would suffice. I don’t have a problem with giving credit and linking back to the originator of a recipe, so I contacted the owner of the site requesting permission to do so. Unfortunately, I never heard back, and I’m not a recipe thief. This forced Mom and me to rework the recipe to our liking and present it as our own. Not a problem since we always tweak a new recipe the minute we find it anyhow.

The most important requirement: the cake had to taste homemade. You wouldn’t think that would be a difficult task since we weren’t using a prepackaged mix, but our cake had to capture the essence of the above-mentioned scene. How does one bake hope, beauty, richness, longing, humbleness, elegance, era, location, and love into a cake? Follow our recipe and find out.

Timeless Wedding Cake

3 sticks unsalted butter, softened

3 c granulated sugar (I used raw necessitating the need to pulverize the larger crystals in a food processor to ensure incorporation during the creaming process. Don’t skip this step; it’s worth it. You’ll be glad you did once you taste the cake.)

5 eggs at room temperature

3 c flour and more for dusting the cake pans

¼ t salt

2 t baking powder

½ c buttermilk at room temperature

½ c whole milk at room temperature

2 t vanilla extract –OR– 1 t vanilla and 1 t lemon

Preheat your oven to 350° F. Spray three nine-inch round cake pans with nonstick spray and dust evenly with flour. Make sure to coat all the edges, and tap out any excess flour.

In a stand mixer, cream the softened butter and sugar until it is very light in color and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time taking care not to over beat after each addition or you’ll end up with a tough cake.

Combine the milks and vanilla in a glass measuring cup and whisk. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together. Add the dry ingredients to the butter/sugar mixture alternately with the wet ingredients. Begin and end with the dry ingredients. A rule of thumb for this process is to add one-third of the dry ingredients, one-half of the wet, another third of the dry, the remaining half of the wet, and the last third of the dry.

Mix on a medium speed until well combined, taking care to stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Evenly distribute the batter between the three cake pans. The batter will be thick, almost like a pound cake batter, so use an off-set spatula to level the tops. All three cakes should bake on the same level of your oven, somewhere near the middle. Carefully shift position of the pans from front to back midway through baking.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. The top of the cakes should not jiggle, and a light crust will have formed on the top. Cool for five minutes in the pans, and then remove the cakes to a wire rack to continue cooling.

Bourbon Soaking Syrup

1 c water

1 c raw sugar

2 T bourbon (I recommend Woodford Reserve)

Combine the sugar and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over a high heat. When at the boil, the syrup is done. Remove from the heat and stir in the bourbon. Set aside to cool. The syrup will thicken as it cools. Brush the cooled bourbon syrup on the top of the cooled cake layers.  If you like thicker syrup, cook longer until more water has evaporated, but take care not to burn the sugar, or it will taste scorched.

Buttercream Frosting

1 c unsalted butter, softened

3 c powdered sugar

2 t vanilla extract

2 T whipping cream

In a stand mixer, cream the butter with one cup of powdered sugar on a low speed. Scrape the bowl as needed and add the remaining two cups, one at a time. Increase the speed to medium and beat for three minutes. Mix in the vanilla and whipping cream. Beat an additional minute, adding cream by the tablespoon if needed, to achieve a spreadable consistency.  If you enjoy a thicker layer of frosting between your cake layers, consider doubling the recipe.

Assembling:

Place one layer of completely cooled, bourbon-soaked cake on a stand or plate and ice the top of the cake to the edges. Place the second layer directly on top of the first and repeat the icing process. Add the final layer of cake and ice accordingly. Use the remaining frosting to ice the sides of the cake. The bourbon soak will add a layer of flavor and keep the cake moist longer.

I knew we had achieved success with our recipe when my sister-in-law took a bite and said, “Oh…this just tastes old-fashioned.”

Enjoy!

Suits Me to a Tea

suits-me-to-a-teaI remember the first time someone asked me if I wanted regular tea or sweet tea. I was a teenager on vacation with my parents in North Carolina. I thought the best thing that would happen to me that week was endless basking in the sun and swimming in the ocean. Who knew that a counter person working the register at McDonald’s could bring such happiness to a Northerner from Ohio? Even better, the delicious beverage was served at every restaurant we visited during that trip. My family had discovered sweet tea and drank it by the gallons that week. We even purchased large cups of sweet tea to drink on the way home. The restaurant wasn’t out of sight before it was consumed.

Flash forward a couple of years to the advent of sweet tea reaching McDonald’s in Ohio and other restaurants as well. We Northerners were elated, but we had a few things to learn: keep your sweet tea refrigerated so it doesn’t grow bacteria and don’t try to pass off that junk in the beverage machines as sweet tea.

All this to say that sweet tea factored in to my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, the first time John met Sam Feldman and Claude Willoughby at the University of Maryland. John had been invited to visit Sam’s home along with Claude. While he instantly liked amiable worrier, Sam, John’s initial opinion of Claude was reserved at best. Claude sneaked bourbon into the sweet tea without John’s knowledge. When John took a large swallow, he choked on the presence of the strong alcohol much to Claude’s entertainment. The conversation that followed would either make or break their tentative relationship.

There are many recipes out there for sweet tea and the history is quite enjoyable to read. I had no idea that iced green tea was the original favorite. The following recipe is the one I had in mind when I wrote the above-mentioned scene. Of course, you can always put a splash of bourbon in yours; just remember to warn your guests first.

Sweet Tea

¾ c sugar (I use raw)

¾ c water

suits-me-to-a-tea-2Place the sugar and water in a saucepan, stir thoroughly, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil the mixture for seven minutes, stirring occasionally. Keep an eye on the heat so the syrup doesn’t scorch. You should attain a gentle, rolling boil. Remove from the heat, and set aside to cool.

10 cups water, divided

6 regular-sized tea black tea bags

1 pinch baking soda

Ice

Lemon slices (optional)

In another saucepan, bring three cups of water to a boil. Remove the pot from the range and place on a trivet. Add tea bags and baking soda, and steep for six minutes. Do not squeeze the tea bags when removing. Add the simple syrup and stir. Allow to cool to room temperature.

When the tea/syrup mixture has cooled, pour into a pitcher and add the remaining seven of cups water. Serve over ice with lemon slices if desired.

Enjoy!

The Sweetest Libation This Side of Heaven

Bourbon whiskey plays an important role in the life of my protagonist, Dr. John Welles. Bourbon is the souvenir of choice for John and his two best friends, Sam Feldman and Claude Willoughby, as they spend a bachelors’ weekend in Kentucky watching the Derby and celebrating Sam’s upcoming marriage. Later in my novel, John employs the contents of this special bottle of bourbon to drown the guilt he endures for his part in a secret cover up regarding the death of a child.

a3f4b1eaa0a14348aa91ede804788043_adf390df7753413c870a7e4655fcf9bd_headerI chose bourbon as John’s drink of choice after a trip to Kentucky with my brother and sister-in-law in 2010. They completed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail the year before and knew which distilleries we would enjoy visiting. Woodford Reserve, Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, and Maker’s Mark rounded out our initial bourbon experience.

I loved every minute of it. From the heady aroma emanating from the enormous vats of sour mash, to the dusty, blackened rickhouses, to the generous samples imbibed in the tasting rooms, our tour was an education steeped in the warm glow of bourbon. While I’m partial to Elijah Craig 18 Year-Old Single Barrel, Parker’s Heritage Fifth Edition Cognac Barrel Finish, Woodford Reserve, and Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, we’ve also discovered several other bourbons worthy of purchase. Don’t miss Willet Pot Still Reserve or 1792 Ridgemont Reserve.

The history of bourbon is as rich as the copper color of the drink itself. Baptist preacher Elijah Craig has been credited for the invention of bourbon whiskey although the tale may be a little on the tall side. We were told during one distillery tour that the charred oak barrels used in making bourbon whiskey came about as the result of an accident in which the barrels were burned. Preacher Craig, either too poor or too cheap to replace the barrels, used them anyhow and bourbon first received its signature color.

Whether or not this is true, bourbon whiskey is an all-American beverage. Strict requirements must be met before the whiskey can be labeled and advertised as bourbon. The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits state that bourbon made for U.S. consumption must be 1) Produced in the United States, 2) Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn, 3) Aged in new, charred oak barrels, 4) Distilled to no more than 160 (US) proof, 5) Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof, and 6) Bottled at 80 proof or more.

Impressive standards for an impressive drink.

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