Our friends Jenny and Fred invited us over for Thanksgiving dinner. Jenny called me about three weeks before to ask if we could come.
"Yes," I said. "But can I..." I paused.
"What?" Jenny asked.
"Can I cook some things?"
She laughed. "You're asking me if you can cook?"
"I know it's weird. I'm one of those fiends that spends days in the kitchen. But I get all zenned (is that a word) out... you know, the house smells good, the radio's on and I'm in my zone. Thanksgiving's probably my favorite holiday."
So I begged Jenny if I could just make some specific things: Apple-sausage stuffing, orange-cognac cranberries and Madeira-shallot gravy that my mom and I have been making since we found the recipes in a 1982 Bon Appetit Magazine. All the recipes are so good my mom has been making them in the town of Roanne in France. I know, Thanksgiving in France?! And with people from all over the world no less. But they all love it.
Then I asked Jenny if I could make a dessert. "Maybe a carrot cake?"
She laughed again, as if she were Tom Sawyer tricking me into white-washing her picket fence. "Sure, carrot cake would be great."
But I love to cook. I'm nuts that way... and in many other ways too, but this is how I'm nutty about cooking.
Just before Thanksgiving, my mom called from France to say that she would be unreachable due to heading from Paris to Roanne to cook her Thanksgiving feast in the little French town. "I just made Grandma's Applesauce-Spice cake... you have to make it! It's so good," she said to me.
I remembered it, of course. Grandma would often make it for special occasions. "I don't know. I kind of had my heart set on carrot cake."
So when I sat down to make my shopping list and to find my carrot cake recipe, what recipe should I find in my messy book of special recipes? My Grandma's Applesauce-Spice cake AND the cream cheese frosting recipe that goes with it, right there in front of my stacks of recipes.
Naturally, I had to make it. I think I even bit my lip at the thought of making a cake from scratch. As bullheaded as I am about taking the long way with everything else, I always resort to box cake mixes due to my few scratch recipe cakes turning out like tasteless boulders.
I wrote down the ingredients to Grandma's recipe - Raisins? Eh, I'm not crazy about them. But I'll get them for Grandma. Nuts? They're good, but in cake? Oh well, I'll get them. I need a sifter? I sift like I iron - never. Alright! I'll buy a sifter.
After an entire afternoon cutting french bread cubes, dicing apples and marinating sausage in cognac, sage and nutmeg... and everything else, I was tired. Still, I had to make the cake (which I made into cupcakes). So I sifted the flour before measuring, to get the flour airy. Next, I sifted the flour once, twice and (Ow!! My hand's cramping!) three times to mix in the cloves, allspice, cinnamon and other spices. But I almost cheated. I almost just dumped it all into the bowl. Who would know? No wonder I use box cake mix! I thought, as I was worn out and covered in flour.
I took the cupcakes out when browned, cooled and iced them. Then my husband and I each tested one out - and, man!! They were the most airy, moist and perfectly flavored cakes I've ever made.
Her whole life, my grandma never once lectured. She simply did. She only spoke kindly about others (Yeesh, if I could only say the same!); she was patient; she was generous - from helping to raise her younger siblings after her father died to helping care for one of her sister's children to volunteer work with the handipcapped and letting my sister and me stay over many, many weekends - yet she never complained (not that I heard, anyway). In that way, her life was a lesson for me (not that I come even close to living up to any of that) - But I aspire to.
So following this recipe to Grandma's Applesauce-Spice Cake was another lesson (or reminder): That putting time and effort into things is always worth it. Even if the cakes had burned, I would have known at least I tried my best. But if I would have sifted any less than recipe called for, left out the raisins or the nuts, I would have never known just how good they could be.
And thanks Fred and Jenny for inviting us over!