Well, then. I was going to natter on about leaving the wrong impression, with all that talk of hammocks and laundry. About how we did make it out of the house in Seattle, into the mountains and ocean, the blue and the green. But I'm just going to pass that job on to the pictures. My heart's not in it.
Thing is, a dear friend suffered a bad blow last week, one of those where the universe whips the rug right out from under you when you're not even looking. Then refuses to give it back.
But I'm not much one for maudlin, or cards, so in lieu of flowers I was thinking we could just talk trees. Big, green trees. The Northwest is completely littered with them. This is not news. Weyerhaeuser knows it. The state quarter knows it. I know it, though it took me a while to appreciate it. For the longest time, all those trees made me groan.Once, in elementary school, a nurseryman came to teach us about our native arboreal splendor. He brought real pine cones and sample branches and beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations to help us see, smell, feel the way Firs were not Pines were not Spruces. I groaned. Probably out loud. Very unlike me.
But I could not for the life of me understand what all the fuss was about. They were all prickly. They were all gawky. They were all green. All. The. Time. We didn't have trees in Washington; we had Tree. One pine-cone studded monobrow, arcing from the Olympics to the Cascades. One non-stop, run-on, scritchy-scratchy, exactly-matches-its-neighbor, ever-stinkin'-green Tree.
Moving works wonders on complacency.
In Ohio, I've finally found all those trees from my storybooks, the ones I could never find out my window, growing up. Oaks and birches, sycamores and beeches, plus catalpas and sweet gums and endless others whose names (and shapes and bark and leaves) I'm only barely beginning to recognize. I love this about Ohio, the particularity of its trees. I also love those Northwest conifers, now more than ever. Yeah, okay, for the first time, ever.
When I head West, now, I pack upgraded peepers. (With all due respect to Proust,
sometimes a person needs new landscapes to get a fresh, spiffy set of new eyes.) Where once I
saw blur, I now see details: huckleberry and sword ferns, thimble
berry and Oregon grape, elegant undergrowth everywhere. Which is sort of
spectacular, all by its lonesome. But it's the whole forest effect
that struck me so, this visit.
It's a little like wandering through a set of Bose speakers, the way the woods broadcast in five-senses 3-D. (Avatar was amazing, but nothing like this.) There's that exquisite cool dank, which infiltrates everything, settling onto your skin and into your nose in dusky lockstep. There's that whole dappled sunlight thing, like inside-out freckles, or stars somehow a-twinkling at noon.
And of course, the teeming masses, those infinite trees, which I still can't ID but am beginning to see. They're not all the same, I can see that now. They're not even a mess, my fallback position. They're layer upon layer of ages and stages, staggered by some clever choreography. Whippet-thin saplings, battalions of second-growth, crumbling stumps and jagged
And, here and there, the quiet giants, those spectacular ancients, around for donkeys' years. Primeval bolt-ends, they always seem to me, though old-growth is the more traditional term. Those that still stand, they anchor those woods.
They punctuate the masses of
middle-rung trees, ALL CAPS in a sea of lower-case. They make shade
for the upstarts, hold hillsides in place, bear scars and lost limbs
from storms before memory. They make the whole place feel a little
like Chartres, hallowed and wise and ripe with perspective. But with snaggletooth branches in place of flying buttresses.
We baked gingerbread this week. I've been loyal to the same lovely version for a while now, ten years, maybe twenty. No more. That was very good; this is sublime. The texture is spot-on, an admirably soft crumb tucked under a crackling crust, with that deeply not-dry manner the English call damp. Spicy, complex, dark, soulful, bold, tender, intense, sweet, profoundly good, at times bitter. A little like life.
Sublime Ginger Cake
adapted from Ready for Dessert, by David Lebovitz
I substituted stem ginger, those tender amber cubes of ginger preserved in syrup, as I had no fresh ginger on hand, and subbed in some of the ginger syrup for molasses, while I was at it. Divine. Trader Joe's and Cost Plus typically stock stem ginger. That said, I have no doubt this cake would still rock your world with the originally-called-for fresh ginger (both variations included, below). I also subbed in whole wheat flour for the white, seeing as that's all I had. 'Twas lovely.
This cake keeps beautifully, 5 days well wrapped.
1/3 cup diced stem ginger (8-10 "cubes", cut down to 1/8" dice) or 4 oz. piece of fresh ginger, peeled, thinly sliced, and finely diced
1 cup mild-flavored molasses (substitute up to 3 Tbs. stem ginger syrup for molasses, if using)
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (wheat, white, or a mix)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten to combine
Preheat oven to 350° and place rack in middle position. Butter bottom and sides of a 9" cake pan, then line bottom with parchment, cut to fit.
In a large bowl, mix molasses, ginger syrup (if using), sugar and oil. Separately, in a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and salt.
In a small saucepan, bring the water to a boil, then stir in baking soda (it will fizzle!). Whisk hot water into molasses mixture, then add chopped ginger.
Slowly add flour mixture to the molasses, whisking to combine. Add eggs, and whisk until well incorporated. Scrape batter into prepared pan, and bake until top of cake springs back when lightly pressed, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, about 50-60 minutes. Let cool completely in pan.
Run a knife around the edges to help loosen from pan. Place a large plate on top, invert cake pan onto plate and peel off parchment, then invert cake onto serving platter. Serve with sweetened whipped cream.