Brown Butter Cake
How long does it take to pack away a lifetime of memories? Sadly, not as long as it takes to create them.
It is a task that many of us have already done or will one day have to face: gathering up the objects of everyday life and the mementos of special times that aging parents or elderly relatives can no longer maintain on their own. These items can be as mundane as a chipped coffee mug or as exceptional as an antique porcelain tea set, as imposing as a baby grand piano or as delicate as a silver shawl pin. No matter their form, utility or monetary value, they are all testaments to unique lives, long- and well-lived. But as fervently as we might wish that our loved ones continue to use these items for many more years, the realities of time and aging no longer allow it.
On an early morning this past March, my Aunt Sarah called with a request: would we be available that weekend to help her and Uncle Steve pack up Grandmother's house? I did not hesitate to answer yes, knowing that my husband would also readily agree without being asked, but as soon as I promised that we'd be there, I felt a sudden, unhappy reluctance at the coming prospect and the realization of what it meant for a beloved figure.
The woman whom my sisters and I affectionately call 'Grandmother' is not at all related to us, either by blood or by marriage. Instead, our enduring ties were woven from a single, slender thread going back fifty years, when she became foster mother to a slight sixteen-year-old exchange student from the Philippines, who would later become mother to a future food blogger.
The house on Timber Lane
Although her first Minnesota winter in Mankato was a shivery surprise, Mama was enfolded in the warm embrace of Bernard and Anna, and their children, Sarah and Bill. From the stories that I now know by heart, her year in the white-painted house on Timber Lane was truly transformative. She was awed by this country's economic riches, political freedoms and educational opportunities, but above all, she was enamored of hamburgers and milkshakes. In some ways, this meal was the embodiment of being American to Mama and when she returned to the Philippines, she carried with her memories of a loving foster family, a deep admiration for America and an extra 20 lbs on her petite frame.
But a grilled meat patty in a bun and an ice cream drink weren't the only treats that had her hooked during that year. Mama couldn't get enough of Grandmother's homemade caramels - luscious, softly sweet and creamy candies, lovingly hand-wrapped in plain wax paper. Years later, a precious package from Mankato would arrive at our home every Christmas: a tin of Grandmother's caramels, of which my sisters and I were grudgingly allowed to have one or two pieces while the rest was squirreled away by Mama to some unknown hiding place.
As a child, I knew about Grandmother only from her candies and the books that she sent us. And what wondrous books - Little House on the Prairie, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Little Women . . .! I credit her for helping to foster my love of reading at an early age, even though we didn't meet until I was nearly a teenager. Despite the fact that we had no blood ties, Grandmother and I somehow connected when I reached young adulthood. I was only fractionally better at correspondence than my mother but she didn't give up on me, sending notes and gifts (of caramels!) as she once did for Mama.
When Mr. Noodle and I moved to Minnesota four years ago, we would visit Grandmother in the same house where my mother spent her incredible year. By then, Grandmother was already in her 90s but she was still active and energetic; we would enjoy lunch at the Country Club or VFW then continue our visit in her living room. But Grandmother's physical strength began to wane these past couple of years and when getting in and out of a car became too much effort for her, I would order out for lunch or bring treats to enjoy with coffee. Late last year, Aunt Sarah convinced Grandmother, now 100 years old, to join her family in Maine where they could care for her more closely.
Grandmother and I said our good-byes just after Thanksgiving. If she was saddened by the thought of leaving the home that Grandfather built for her after their marriage and where she raised her family, her resolute and quite practical spirit wouldn't show it.
A few years ago, she had given me her caramel recipe (although I have yet to master it well enough to produce sweets as consistently delicious as hers). During that last visit, when I mentioned how my caramel-making was often hit-and-miss, she whispered to her aide Kaye, who went into the kitchen and re-appeared with an object wrapped in paper towels. Without fanfare, Grandmother handed me her candy thermometer. The numbers on it are faded from years of being dipped into boiling cream, sugar and butter, but it might as well have be a bejeweled scepter, so much do I cherish it.
Several months later, we were back at her house but this time, Grandmother was not sitting in her favorite chair by the bay window, impeccably dressed and coiffed as always as she waited for her visitors. Instead, there was Aunt Sarah in the midst of boxes, moving blankets and packing paper, efficiently organizing all of us for the task at hand and trying not to let emotion overcome her. After all, we were packing away her memories, too.
Knowing Grandmother, no-nonsense and indomitable, I don't doubt that she felt it was for the best; Aunt Sarah and Uncle Steve were bringing much of her belongings back to Maine while some were destined to find their place with the grandchildren. Toward the end of the day, Aunt Sarah asked me to pick out something as a keepsake of Grandmother, perhaps a crystal candy dish or lovely little silver condiment set. But all I could think of was Grandmother's caramels, of our few-and-far-between lunches together, and of how Mama grew plump and content on hearty Midwestern fare those many decades ago . . .
So I asked for her pots, pans and baking sheets. They aren't antiques or particularly unique - just the sort of items you'd find in most kitchens. They aren't restaurant-quality or made of special materials - just everyday cookware and bakeware. But to me, they represent the nourishing spirit of a special woman who opened her home and heart to a shy young stranger and made us a part of her family. I asked for these because I would use them regularly and by doing so, I can still be close to Grandmother, no matter the years and distance between us.
How long does it take to store a lifetime of memories? Only as long as it takes to tuck them into your heart.
Given how often I mentioned them in this post, it would have been an obvious choice to offer Grandmother's caramel recipe. Aside from the personal sentiments, there isn't a magical ingredient in these candies - only the usual sugar, butter and cream. But for those same sentimental reasons, I'd like to keep it to myself for just a while longer, if you don't mind. Instead, I thought I'd use some of Grandmother's bakeware and, inspired by the daisy motif that surrounded her 100th birthday last August, I found this lovely recipe . . .
Brown Butter Cake with Crème Fraîche and Blackcurrant Jam
The tart flavors of both the jam and the crème fraîche are perfect complements to the sweetness of this buttery-moist cake. Use your favorite jam or preserves and make your own crème fraîche for a truly individual dessert!
Brown Butter Cake
(Adapted from a recipe by Leather Storrs in Delicious Living 4/09)
10 Tbsps unsalted butter (1 1/4 sticks)
2.5 oz almond meal (approx. 2/3 cup)
2.5 oz all-purpose flour (approx. 2/3 cup)
2 cups confectioner's/powdered sugar
3/4 cup egg whites*
1 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
*I used liquid egg whites; otherwise, this would be about 5 to 6 eggs
Preheat oven to 350°F
1. Cook butter over low-medium heat in a saucepan until milk solids become a dark brown color, approximately 10-20 minutes. Watch carefully so that butter does not burn;
2. In a large bowl, combine almond meal, flour and sugar and mix well. Stir in egg whites, vanilla and salt then add browned butter slowly, mixing constantly;
3. Generously coat* a muffin pan, ramekins or individual-sized cake pans with cooking spray; fill 2/3 full with batter;
4. Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean; remove from oven and let cool;
*And I mean generously - my cakes stuck a bit because of the sugar content.
Check out these recipes from GroupRecipes.com and EasyFrenchFood.com. Most recipes call for a buttermilk starter and heavy cream, NOT ultrapasteurized whipping cream. Guess what? I only had ultrapasteurized whipping cream and non-fat yogurt, so that's what I used. Although the end result was not as thick as other recipes describe, it was still quite creamy and delicious (if I may say so myself!)
Update 6/24/09: If anyone knows about making crème fraîche, it's Jenni of Pastry Methods and Techniques, who's made quarts of it on a weekly basis, and she shares her technique here. This will be my next batch of CF!
1 cup heavy or whipping cream
2 Tbsps non-fat yogurt
1. Carefully heat cream in a saucepan until just warm, between 85 °F - 100°F;
2. Pour into a clean glass jar or container and mix in yogurt;
3. Cover LOOSELY with lid or plastic wrap, place in a warm spot for at least 12 hours and up to 24 hours;
4. After this time, cover fully with lid and refrigerate; it should thicken more as it cools. Crème may be stored in the fridge for about 1 week.
To serve the cake:
Mix crème fraîche with your favorite jam or preserves and spoon over individual cakes, or serve the crème and jam on the side. Daisies optional.