It is. Spring lambs are so March.
That one is also, and this one. And the next.
And the next twelve or twenty.
In real life, we are under eighty-plus degree skies, with every green thing climbing cloud-ward and humidity finally edging in.
In this space, though, I want to pause, to mark one small corner of a year just wrapped.
Way back in September, with both boys in school, Zoë and I stumbled into a fine, occasional habit. We realized, in the way one sometimes does in a family, that a new chapter sat splayed on the table of our afternoons. With naps behind us, and legs just long enough, and a shared giddy-up-and-go attitude, we had ourselves the opportunity to explore. Collect leaves. Pack backpacks. Pet animals. Wear backpacks. Hike trails. Unpack backpacks. Poke around our city. Pet more animals. Re-pack backpacks.
We read it, we took it (the chapter, the opportunity). And we came to call it 'adventuring'. (The definition is as squishy as oobleck; don't even try to go OED on it. We both know what we mean, and that's all that matters.)
Adventuring wasn't our everyday, this past year. It wasn't even our everyweek, or everyother. But once a month, sometimes twice, between our ordinary afternoons of groceries-stories-laundry-library-dishes-stuff-of-life, we'd catch each other's eye across the breakfast table, and ask, 'Want to go adventuring'?
I can't remember a time the answer was not yes. I can't remember a string of afternoons I've enjoyed more.
We've played Pooh sticks in a few of our favorite streams. Waded in others. Squelched through a few.
We've found mushrooms in fall, frosted grass in winter, and in spring, irrepressibility, everywhere. Plus enough stones and leaves—"treasures", in local parlance—to enrich a middling kingdom. (We only ever leave footprints, mostly only take pictures. But sometimes, the pockets come home a bit heavy.)
We've seen white squirrels and blue heron and frogs in all forms, i.e. eggs, tadpoles, adolescents, croakers, and lunch. A few deer. Pigs, horses, hilarious turkeys. A pinch-me-now riot of still-rumpled lambs.
We've been scared witless by a flock of Canadian honkers. Whether they actually chose that very moment to head South for the winter, or whether they were just looking for a laugh, I'll never know. I only know there is intense thunder and vortex on the runway, under a lifting-off flock. Also, that we'd do well to buff up our Duck Duck Goose.
We've worn mittens and hats, and whisper-weather pants and T's, and breezy-thin summer dresses that still left us melting. (Adventuring is not season-specific.)
And somehow, even in a cacophany of polka dots, two florals, and elephant print tennies, managed to camoflouge ourselves in nature. Go figure.
And we've walked. Sometimes fast, often slow. Sometimes far, often not. The 1.25 miles she clocked while 3.5 years impressed me mightily. And made up for the "hikes" where we turned around at the trailhead. I am learning, as a parent, to keep expectations low, flexibility high.
(The gerund, incidentally, is imperative here. Don't be fooled by pretty pictures, assume charmed days. Eleven years I've been at this parenting business. And still, I can't conjugate "to learn" into the past tense.)
We've adventured to the zoo, and the neighborhood park, and a forty-five minute slooooooow leaf-hunt around our one block.
The important part is the sharing of hours, the calibrating of paces, the coming-together of independent attentions. That old journey mumbo jumbo; destination, optional.
And though they never technically fell under our 'adventuring' umbrella, I privately include a few other days, also. The occasional lunch date, just us two, for Chipotle or warm naan dipped in cool raita. The afternoons we'd make a meal of Raincoast Crisps and St. André and tiny cups of chamomile tea. (She's the only one who agrees this trio equals lunch. Adventures of spirit count in my book.)
The afternoon we changed the tire on the jogging stroller. I'd never changed a tire, stroller or otherwise; I needed all the aid and advice I could get. Who knew there was a tire and a tube?
The afternoons I answered "Yes" to "Let's do a project!", minus the ordinary but... and after... and until... Where we set aside the urgent manys that fill lists and days, and sat at the table two hours or more, and gave ourselves over to some making whim. Clothespin dolls. Collages. Puzzles, one-on-one. An entire extended family of charismatic potatoes. (Particularly colorful characters, those.)
A friend came for tea, recently, and I struggled to sit two consecutive minutes between jump-ups. Not for lack of interest, just lack of still. Two hours may be my ultimate adventure.
And as the year evolved, our afternoons did, also, with a slow trend toward more friends, less mom. Which is exactly as it should be. Playdates are a right and ritual of four, and it is an adventure of another ilk to see these new muscles develop.
Besides, it is no end of entertaining to eavesdrop on two four year olds figuring out how to elude an imaginary ogre. (Turns out you cook him dinner, heavy on the wooden veg.)
And as the school year has wound down, this particular brand of adventuring has also, as we are now four and not two, all day long. We are not done exploring; not hardly. But the flavor, the tenor, the content has changed. Bicycling. Swimming. Robot-building. The big brother influence is evident, and the pace. Somehow, Zoë held her own this week, trudging two-plus miles with four older kids. The details may differ, but the adventuring continues.
In the kitchen, as elsewhere.
Am I alone in considering it an adventure when a recipe begins, "Put a colander inside a large bowl; wet a clean kitchen towel and wring out as much water as you can. Fold it in half to create a double layer; line the colander with it. Add the buttermilk and cover with plastic wrap; refrigerate for 24 hours." No? Yes? Probably? Well, good for you. You'll eat very well, and much sooner than I.
Because while I'm down with yeast, and don't think twice about rolled doughs, and thrill over a fridge full-to-bursting with produce, something about that kitchen towel, man, it threw me. Stopped me in my tracks, for a fortnight, easy. Don't make the same mistake; a two-week wait is too long. And the towel bit is every bit as un-tricky as it sounds: drench, squeeze, line, pour buttermilk, ignore. You're nine-tenths of the way toward strawberry reveries. More on that in just a moment.
Our final adventure, during the boys' final school days, was a trip to the local U-pick strawberry patch. Four year olds, it turns out, are good for roughly eight berries. Twelve, at a stretch, with ample encouragement. Beyond that, the afternoon was a delicate dance of picking and distracting, simultaneously. Row runs were timed, Princess Strawberry invented, peek-a-boo strung along for another half-pound. It was worth it; they were tiny, intense, excellent.
The already-picked flat we bought helped bolster our stores.
Strawberries don't see much fuss, around here. (Probably, plain doesn't surprise you by now.) The first day, we gobble as is, on the stem, wrists red with juice, meals made of fruit. Day 2, I get fancy, start slicing and sugaring, there being somehow pomp in strawberries as fork food. Also, out comes the chocolate. Always, the chocolate. Day 3? By Day 3, most sane people would have canned, gotten the water bath bubbling and jam jars popping and put up the bounty for six months hence.
I don't can.
So for me, Day 3 is when we start enhancing, knowing our time is short and our appetite, long. Day 3 is when we start "cooking", if you will. Except, I don't really cook, either. At least not much, not when it comes to fruit.
More and more, as time spins and the seasons pile up, I find I want to do less and less to my fruit. It is not that I don't love a pie, scone, crisp, cake or crumble, and certainly, they do cross our table. But I want to eat fruit by the heap and the haul, greedily, immoderately. Not weighed down by crumb or crust. So I find myself searching for fruit made forthright: roasted apples, soused strawberries, intensified rhubarb. Fruit under a spotlight, supported, encouraged, gently uplifted to be more like itself.
Cue the berries and cream.
Fruit and cream are, of course, age-old companions, the stuff of fools and syllabubs and endless pies à la mode. And I, cross my heart, love whipped cream more than anyone. This is a fact. This is a challenge. I consider the proper proportion of pumpkin pie to whipped cream to be 1:1. And I adore pumpkin pie. I consider heavy cream, just pasteurized, barely sweetened, softly whipped and faintly vanilla'd, to be one of the Mother Sauces.
(except i've always had this tiny niggling bother with whipped cream, particularly when it rubs shoulders with fruit. it's about the oil slick. you know the one. that pesky veneer, the one that blankets your taste buds, whenever heavy cream hits cold fruit. eck. ugh. i love heavy cream too much to hurt its feelings, and feel it fares beautifully in all other departments, so i mention this only as a whispered aside, and as the reason behind my enthusiasm for what follows. i've long been on a hunt for something, cream-y but not cream, to escort my fruit.
!!! BINGO !!!
oops. library voice. moving on.)
About that damp towel, and that buttermilk, above. What happens, during its overnight in the fridge, is a draining and thickening, a.k.a. exaltation. The process is akin to making yogurt cheese; the outcome, entirely different. (It was Megan who first made this analogy, and whom I credit for catching the potential in this Dutch dish. I don't know about you, but I don't read Hangop met Boerenjongens, and think, Sounds like a winner! Please forward any thanks, then, to A Sweet Spoonful.) Strained buttermilk has a kinder, gentler mien than strained yogurt, a softly sweet tang that never rings sour. I know this from rigorous straight-from-the strainer testing.
But wait. It gets better. So much better.
Because to this, you add a half-cup of heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks with a modesty of sugar. You fold this right into the now-thick buttermilk, which sort of sighs and opens and spreads its wings. It becomes something unlike anything I've ever eaten, and something I'll eat every summer, hence. There's the signature tang of the buttermilk, which plays well with anything juice-filled and sun-ripe. But also, there's a round, mellow sweet, the clear accent of pure cream, making itself heard.
Really, though, it could taste like tire treads, and I'd eat it anyway, for its haunting featherweight. According to some physics I don't quite understand, the cream's loft is not lost when it hits the strained solids. Instead, the buttermilk winds up leavened by cream, like biscuits by baking soda, like hot air balloons by helium. The end result is exquisitely airy and light, an ethereal thing, a butterfly's wing. A butterfly's wing with latent punk tendencies, thanks to that inimitable buttermilk edge.
It's a little like mascarpone, minus the cloying. Like sour cream, minus the rich. Like straight whipped cream, minus the gloss. Like a June cloud, served up on a spoon. A cloud which, it seems, goes with everything. We've heaped it over ripe mangos, per Megan's original, inverting only the proportions, fruit with fluff, not vice versa. Nice. It is custom-made for cardamom-roasted apricots, warm from the oven, or cold the next morning. Rhubarb, cooked any which way, adores it. Also, it is dangerously excellent eaten straight, with inky murky muscovado stirred right in. Stop yourself at thirds. If you can.
But thus far, in our house, its favorite friend is the strawberry, plus brown sugar, dark as you like. The kids like to dunk their berries whole, first in the cloud, then in the brown sand. Like that old standby of strawberries, sour cream and brown sugar, but delicate, not deadening. Me, I like mine sliced and barely sugared, snuggled in under a good dollop, dappled with that same muscovado.
And you? How will you take yours? There are blueberries around the corner, and August's blackberries, and eventually, Fall's fruits. Go. Adventure with it. Let me know where you land.
I amended Megan's original by adding a touch of sugar directly to the finished cloud; just enough to whisper, not enough to sweeten. Additionally, I found the towel wanted to wick whey from the buttermilk, and deposit it all over my refrigerator. Folding the towel ends up, and placing the strainer set-up on a plate or tray, eliminates this problem. Finally, good, whole (at least not non-fat) buttermilk is key. An organic buttermilk will do the job nicely, or the Bulgarian buttermilk most supermarkets stock.
*See below for additional serving ideas. This is the little black dress of seasonal fruit.
6 cups whole buttermilk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4-1/3 cup granulated sugar
plenty of fresh strawberries, sliced, dusted with sugar
muscovado or brown sugar, to top
Place a large colander atop a wide, deep bowl, and place bowl on a wide plate or tray. Wet a clean cotton kitchen towel, wring out as much water as possible, then fold in half. Line colander with wet towel, and pour in the buttermilk. Fold towel ends loosely over the top, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 24 hours.
The next day, using a rubber spatula, scrape the drained buttermilk from the towel, into a medium bowl. It will be thick; claim every last bit of goodness. Stir buttermilk a few times, until smooth and creamy.
In a separate bowl, beat heavy cream until half-whipped. Add sugar, beginning with the 1/4 cup, and continue to whip until firm, soft peaks form. Scrape into buttermilk bowl, and fold gently, to incorporate. Taste for sugar (kindly tart is good), adding a scratch more, if desired.
To serve on strawberries: slice your best and brightest, then dust lightly with sugar (one teaspoon per cup is plenty), stirring gently and setting aside to macerate, 10 minutes-1 hour. Pile berries into a bowl, dollop with buttermilk cloud, and sprinkle with muscovado or brown sugar.
*Other Serving Ideas:
:: Roast fresh apricots, like this, with a dab of butter, sugar, and cardamom, until they still hold their shape but are melting within, 20-25 minutes (half the time of apples). Serve bowls of apricots, warm or at room temperature, with generous dollops of buttermilk cloud, and muscovado or crumbled amaretti.
:: Spoon over rhubarb, poached, simmered, roasted or splodged, stirring together, as for a fool, until the loveliest pale pink.
:: Spoon over fresh sliced ataulfo mangos, with a bit of turbinado sugar and crushed pistachios.
:: Spoon over fresh blackberries, heated with a bit of sugar in a saucepan a few minutes, just until juices start to flow.
:: Straight up: Spoon buttermilk cloud directly into small cups, stir in a few teaspoons of muscovado, and eat. Surgeon General's Warming: Highly Addictive.