Vanity: The Thyroid Chronicles, Part II

from sketchfu.com

By now you may have heard of “The Mom Stays in the Picture,” Allison Slater Tate’s manifesto that we mothers shouldn’t hide behind the camera because we are ashamed of our post-baby bodies and the ravages of aging.

“Our sons need to see how young and beautiful and human their mamas were. Our daughters need to see us vulnerable and open and just being ourselves — women, mamas, people living lives.

“When I look at pictures of my own mother, I don’t look at cellulite or hair debacles. I just see her — her kind eyes, her open-mouthed, joyful smile, her familiar clothes. That’s the mother I remember.” 

Juxtaposed with this, I read a piece on the Huffington Post on why feeling pretty after 50 is important.

What still confuses me, and what I want to explore in my thoughts, conversations and writing, is what aging gracefully means to me.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t dress a whole lot differently than I did at sixteen and, truth be told, I don’t look a whole lot different either.  So when I have to grapple with things like that roll of fat around the middle that just won’t go away

I’m not sure whether to fight it, accept it or make peace with it and figure out how to deal with it.

“It’s inevitable. You’re getting older,” sighed my Ob/Gyn.  “It may be the perfect storm of perimenopausal hormones and glycemic sensitivity,” said my new general practitioner, who spent a full hour talking with me and listening to my concerns. “Try shaving two or three hundred calories off your daily intake each day, change your exercise routine and give yourself six months to lose ten pounds.”

My first round of thyroid tests were normal and though I don’t yet have the results of my second round of blood work, I assume those tests will also be normal.

That’s a good thing.  Though I was anxious for a concrete answer to the changes in my body and rightfully vigilant of the impact of the steroid injections I’d received, I’m glad there’s nothing wrong with me and that I won’t have to be on medication for the rest of my life.

But because I’m not ready to throw in the towel when it comes to my tumultuous tummy, at the doctor’s suggestion, I became familiar with the glycemic index, which measures the impact on blood sugar levels in the body after eating certain foods. If you feel bloated after eating pasta and wonder whether the glycemic index could be the greatest thing since sliced bread, check out the glycemic index website put together by the University of Sydney, which among other things, maintains the international glycemic index database of a wide variety of foods.  Most experts agree that the number you want to pay attention to is the glycemic load, which combines both the quality and quantity of carbohydrate in one ‘number’. According to the University of Sydney, it’s the best way to predict blood glucose values of different types and amounts of food. (This blog is not meant to be the source of medical advice. If you are curious about the glycemic index or any other aspects of your health, please consult with a doctor, preferably one who will take the time to listen to your concerns).

I’m more concerned with the life index, which I define as how quickly a meal shared with others is converted to joy,  i.e. how I can have my cake and eat it too.

I knew the day we went to eat dim sum with two Chinese exchange students that lo mai gai, sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf with pork, would wreak havoc on my mid-section.  I could ill afford the Michelin look, because the next day I was scheduled for a photo shoot to obtain an author photo for my book Ruminations from the Minivan:  musings from a world grown large, then small, which is coming out soon.

We had a great time with the Chinese girls, I ate leftover lo mai gai for a mid-afternoon snack and was predictably puffy the next morning.  So I ate oatmeal for breakfast, worked out and instructed the photographer to take head shots only.

It was worth it.

Despite the warmth and easy demeanor of the photographer, I still found the photo shoot uncomfortable, especially when I looked at all the images she had taken on her digital camera and saw my many nuanced poses reflected back at me in Fifty Shades of Alison.

I hadn’t until realized until then that, unlike writing a book, promoting a book means getting into the picture instead of remaining comfortably behind the scenes, and that this is just the first of many times in the coming months that I will have to put myself out there — vanity be damned.

What saved me was a recent interview I’d had with B.J. Neblett, a fellow author who was writing a profile of me for our writers’ collective website.  The morning we met, I was unshowered and wearing an old sweatshirt of Jeff’s. B.J. didn’t care that I was scruffy. We had an enjoyable conversation, which was reflected in the flattering profile he wrote about me.

I’m not going to pretend to have given up vanity, not to be flattered when people compliment me on my youthful appearance and not to be shocked when I resemble my maternal forbears in their later years (spoiler alert – there is one poem in my new book entitled, “My Grandmother’s Thighs”). I will sporadically pay attention to the glycemic index but hopefully, as the years go by, I will scrupulously pay attention to the life index — dim sum bloating be damned.

Aging gracefully

 I had a great idea for a recipe to share with you that I thought would cleverly tie the themes in this post together.  I planned to call it “Vanity Fare.”  It comes from Dorie Greenspan‘s book Around My French Kitchen and involves slicing boneless skinless chicken breasts into strips, sauteeing them in butter and then adding a cup of creme fraiche with two LU Cinnamon Sugar cookies crumbled and mixed in.  I was going to say that when chicken breasts are sweet and creamy and comforting, nobody cares if they are pleasantly plump.

“What’s for dinner,” daughters #1 and #2 asked suspiciously (they are often suspicious when I am cooking). “Chicken with cookies!” I said, assuming they would be thrilled to have a dessert-like twist on dinner.  I was thrilled to produce such an effortless elegant meal so quickly because I had to rush off to a meeting before the meal was over. They took tentative bites and proclaimed it “too rich.”  The next day, I found some chicken wadded up in a napkin and (not very well) hidden in my office.  We had pasta that night for dinner.

 I hope when my kids look at pictures of me and I’m sporting a tummy, they’ll see the kind eyes and joyful open smile of a mother who ate carbohydrates to make them happy.

Shall I Compare Me to a Summer’s Fig?

If I were a real food blogger, I’d be writing about late summer Italian plums, figs and tomatoes, the last blackberry cobbler of the season, about eggplants and the fact that by late August my apple tree was already brimming with fruit as red as a seductress’ lips.

I’d be telling you that for the first summer in thirteen years, I made no jam from berries I had picked myself, but luckily was able to use Susan Herrmann Loomis’ recipe for apricot jam from her lovely book On Rue Tatin (a nice read when you are suffering from the doldrums) with the remnants of the ten-pound box of apricots I bought in Eastern Washington on the way home from a camping trip in Idaho.

I had big plans for these apricots, but a certain teenager ate most of them on the road from Quincy to Seattle.

I might mention all the terrific Mexican food we ate at the Columbia River Gorge and the fact that I got to eat at three restaurants I’d always wanted to try:  the fantastic Pok Pok in Portland, Aziza, the San Francisco restaurant owned by Mourad Lahlou, author of Mourad’s New Moroccan, one of my favorite new cookbooks this year, and the iconic Zuni Cafe, where the famed roast chicken did not disappoint. Two weeks in a row, after dining at Aziza, I made Mourad’s piquillo almond spread, a real crowd-pleaser.

I might sneak in a mention of some of the books I finally got around to reading on vacation (The Night Circus, The Tiger’s Wife and, at the behest of Daughter #1, The Hunger Games trilogy).

I could tell you that it is bittersweet to realize that with the passage of years comes the realization that I will never have enough time in a season to make all of the favorite dishes we have compiled,

especially since I can’t resist adding new favorites, such as the Garum Factory’s Avocado Salad with Pikliz.

Finally, I might point out that if you have an abundance of Italian plums or figs, you could do worse than to turn to Dorie Greenspan‘s Baking from my home to yours  for inspiration (check out her Fig Cake for Fall and Flip-Over Plum Cake) and that if you are having a big gathering of friends on Lummi Island for Labor Day, people will be impressed if you whip up a big paella (even if you think you could have done a better job seasoning it).

But I’m just a broken down hybrid mid-life blogger taking advantage of a few free minutes on this, my 51st birthday, to muse about the differences between turning 50 and 51, opportunities found and lost this summer, our family’s newfound preoccupation with hair and the fact that as I progress further and further into that undefined hormonal state known as perimenopause (and perhaps because of all my fine summer dining), I am beginning to resemble a fig and am longing for the vitality I had when I turned 50.

Today was the first day of school, so if ever there was a birthday that was not all about me, this was it.  You should see our downstairs bathroom.  It’s a mess of hair straighteners, hair product, curling irons, nail polish remover and metallic blue nail polish, some of which has spilled onto the top of the toilet bowl, where it will probably remain for eternity.

I wanted this, my friends remind me.  I wanted Daughter #1 to feel comfortable with her femininity and to embrace her beauty instead of hiding it. I love the new nightly ritual of Daughter #2, our resident fashionista, patiently straightening her sister’s hair, of watching the two of them in the bathroom at 6:30 a.m., determining how much mascara is too much, of seeing how much fun they both have with clothes.

I also want to be able to leave the house without having to factor in 45 minutes of primping every time.

Instead of a day of self-indulgence and an unbroken train of thought, my birthday (it is now the next day) ended up being about making time for other people:  a 6:30 a.m. call from my nephew, who will soon be deployed to Afghanistan and a call that interrupted my much-anticipated chance to exercise from my brother, who told me about the Bruce Springsteen concert he had just attended (he was seated next to Chris Christie).

You can take the girl out of Jersey but…

There was the farewell conversation with our elderly neighbor, who has been a part of our lives for seventeen years and is leaving her home for a retirement community, and there was teen roulette.

As anyone who has more than one child knows, a good day is one in which all of your kids are content. More often than not, if one has a good day, the other doesn’t but, like a game of roulette, no matter how you bet, there is no proven strategy for beating the odds.

I held my breath to see how the first day of school would turn out.  I didn’t have to hold it for very long, because Daughter #1 started school at 11:30 and Daughter #2 finished at 1:00.  We went out for a Starbucks refresher, which is as magical to my daughters as my breast milk used to be, and Daughter #2’s impressions of her first day of middle school at a new school came spilling out.  When we went to pick up Daughter #1 at her friend’s house, I quickly scanned her face for signs of how the day had gone.  Then off to the swimming pool for her swim team tryout, which had been a disaster the day before, and this time was a smashing success.

It was only as we sat down for sushi and Daughter #1, now a seasoned veteran of middle school, regaled us with funny stories,

that I let the psychic energy of the day dissipate and I relaxed and remembered it was my birthday.

We came home to presents, lemon tart and dog poop on the stairs.  And then, as the hair straightener came out and my daughters took up their respective positions of straightener and straightenee, we listened to Michelle Obama’s speech about hard work and personal responsibility and contributing to the well being of society.

We’re gearing up for a new school year, a new array of seasonal foods to inspire us, a new   soccer season and new books to read (including my birthday bounty:  Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson and Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi, author of Plenty, one of my favorite cookbooks this year).

All in all, it was a pretty good summer, a pretty good first day of school and a pretty good birthday.

All’s well that ends well.

What I Wore

There it was, featured in the Boden USA catalogue, the Riviera shirt dress.  Despite the fact that the model was five inches taller, twenty-five years younger and twenty-five pounds lighter than me, I was completely seduced by the suggestion that by donning that dress, I, too, could have a life inspired by the French Riviera, sipping Lillet cocktails in a sunflower-filled garden.

Still, I waited.

Whenever a new Boden catalogue comes out, I make note of the outfits that catch my fancy (as the British-based company would say) for future reference.  Future reference means clearance sale.  Boden has fantastic clearance sales and I am the happy owner of of three Boden dresses, one cardigan, a few shirts and several skirts — all colorful and striking — that I scored during clearance sales.

When the dress arrived, it became clear that on the shorter, squatter me, it was not quite as sleek, stylish and, well, French as it had looked on the model.  But embellished with a black patent leather belt and cute black sandals (someone once told me that accessories are what separate us from animals), I was able to pull together a look that would be eye-catching in Seattle, the fleece capital of the U.S.

I wore it for the first time on a gray, chilly summer morning for a work-related meeting.  As a writer who works from home, it’s rare that I have to dress up, and fifteen years removed from the daily tyranny of heels and pantyhose, I still get a shiver of excitement whenever I do. As many Boden dresses are, this one was extremely comfortable.  And as I waited for my morning latte, the barista said approvingly, “Hey, nice dress.”

We were going to a party later that evening, the kind of party suggested by the photo of the dress in the catalogue, sipping drinks on the deck of a house with a view of the sunset over Puget Sound.

I wanted to wear the dress to the party but feared it was too dressy.  Seattle party attire usually consists of fleece, cargo pants and Tevas, though lately I’ve seen a lot of high-end yoga wear.

Plus, there was the problem of the intervening seven hours between the end of my meeting and the party. Should I take the dress off and put it on again later?  Or should I revel in the “daytime to dusk” qualities of the dress and keep it on all day?

Have you ever read the Sunday New York Times Style Section feature What I Wore?

Here’s an excerpt from the May 17, 2012 profile of the painter Anh Duong:

May 9:  Still recovering from the Met Ball marathon, where I, in my beautiful Giambattista Valli dress the color of a cloud, climbed all night from the bottom of the Met stairs to the Top of the Standard hotel for the after-party.

But all I have left from the ball is a cold. I started with a new healthy smoothie recipe that I read on Goop. Rejuvenated, I slipped into my gray Stella McCartney exercise costume. I don’t know if I would have committed to my exercise regimen without her designing for Adidas. Whatever it takes.

Before heading uptown to see my shrink (I like to dress comfortably so I can relax on the couch and let my inner child free), I put on a beige Phillip Lim sleeveless wool dress with a black Uniqlo T-shirt and Christian Louboutin black biker boots. Added a DVF cashmere leopard-print scarf for my sick throat.

It’s very clear to me that the people profiled in What I Wore, all of whom change their outfits at least three times a day, don’t do their own laundry.

Were the New York Times to profile me in their What I Wore feature, it might go something like this:

July 30:  Donned a ripped T-shirt and black exercise pants from Target to walk the dog.  The worn patches in the hindquarters remind me of ominous gray storm clouds. 

Put on a striking blue and white Riviera shirt dress from Boden and went off to work.  Came home to find kids bickering and, feeling French, toyed with the idea of yelling “Ca suffit!”  The full skirt of the dress makes a statement when you flounce away in frustration. I drove to a neighborhood park and checked my email and discovered some good news I had been waiting for.

Still wearing the shirt dress, I took the kids and the dog to the doctor for check-ups and shots and then waited in the car while they bought donuts.  When we got home, as a post-shot treat, we curled up on the couch together and I  agreed to watch Pretty Little Liars, their favorite show, with them. Miraculously, though I repeatedly wrinkled my nose during the television program, the dress remained wrinkle-free.  

Did you know it’s easy to cook in the Riviera dress?  Feeling tres Nicoise, yet trying to avoid splattering oil, I whipped up a batch of socca to bring to a party and then loaded the dishwasher.

The lighthouse of Nice, on the Mediterranean c...

The lighthouse of Nice, on the Mediterranean coast (French Riviera). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 My husband and I strolled to the party, where we sipped drinks in the company of writers, while watching the sun set over Puget Sound.  I felt a few pangs of regret when I admitted that I’ve barely made time for any writing this summer because mostly all I’ve been doing is driving kids places and doing endless amounts of laundry and dishes.  Then I remembered that French women don’t have regrets.

“Hey, nice dress,” someone said.

Socca is the perfect snack to prepare for any occasion, but especially when you are feeling worn down from doing laundry and dishes and need a little of the French Riviera to bring romance back into your life.  I used Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe from Plenty but have also used Dorie Greenspan’s socca recipe from Around My French Table and have faith that David Lebovitz’s socca recipe is as great as all of his recipes are.  Thanks to Dorie Greenspan, I now keep a jar of homemade creme fraiche in my refrigerator, right next to the preserved lemons.

Finally, my go-to summer cocktail this year has been a Lillet spritzer, which is Lillet on the rocks with sparkling water and a squeeze of fresh lime.

It reminds me of my younger days, when I subsisted on white wine spritzers and air-popped popcorn and a pretty dress could lead to all sorts of possibilities.

Spring Awakening

“Until I moved to the ranch, the coming of spring had been a gradual and painless thing, like developing a bust.”

Though I’m not sure pubescent girls would characterize bust development as “gradual and painless,” I’ve never encountered such an evocative description of spring as Betty MacDonald‘s in her 1945 classic book The Egg and I. 

If you are from Washington State, you’ve likely heard of MacDonald and of this very funny book, which describes her experiences living on a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula with no running water and no electricity.  Ma and Pa Kettle (modeled after MacDonald’s slacker neighbors) originated in The Egg and I, and were featured in its 1947 film adaptation, starring Fred McMurray and Claudette Colbert.

They may also have originated the concept of the “spin-off.”

Ma and Pa Kettle (film)

Ma and Pa Kettle (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I didn’t realize until reading The Egg and I, is that Betty MacDonald was a trailblazer in the art of food writing.

“..there was so much of everything and it was so inexpensive and so easy to get that it was inevitable that we should expect to eat like kings,” she writes of Pacific Northwest bounty, such as fresh field mushrooms, clams, oysters, steelhead salmon and Dungeness Crab “We’d go on regular crab sprees –eat cracked crab with  homemade mayonnaise well-flavored with garlic and Worcestershire, until it ran out of our ears. Have deviled crab, crab Louis and crab claws sauteed in butter and served with Tartar sauce.”  At the time, she notes, she could buy a gunnysack full of Dungeness crabs for $1.

Sadly, she was not a fan of geoduck.

It's the largest burrowing clam in the world, and a local favorite.

Still, all that natural bounty from the garden and berry bushes could be oppressive come canning season.

MacDonald describes herself as “lyrical with joy” when her pressure cooker blew up.

“I was free! Free! F-R-E-E!”

Her practical husband calmly picked up the Sears Roebuck catalogue and ordered her another.

Global warming notwithstanding, MacDonald’s 1945 description of Seattle springs holds true today:  “Seattle spring was a delicate flower of the pale gray winter –a pastel prelude to the pale yellow summer which flowed gently into the lavender autumn and on into the pale gray winter.  It was all very subtle and we wore the same clothes the year around (note that this was written long before the invention of fleece – our native dress) and often had beach fires in January but found it too cold for them in June..”

From Tim Jones' (a self-described minivan-driving soccer dad) blog "View from the Bleachers."

What she means is that despite the changes in season, we can be cold here, all year round. I write this, wrapped in a blanket, looking out the window as sunlight strobes on and off my plum trees, which are already past their bloom.  It hailed last week, and all this week the weather has ping-ponged from lion-like to lamb-like and back.
So it’s lucky that we have seasonal bounty to warm and sustain us and especially lucky that we can leave the growing to the trusted professionals, yet still eat like kings and even can at our discretion.
Like most Sundays, this past Sunday I walked to the Ballard Farmers Market to see what was new for spring.

My favorite fish guys.

 I emerged with beets, radishes, stinging nettles, jerusalem artichokes and freshly caught salmon and had fun all week cooking lighter spring fare.  David Lebovitz was generous enough to share on Facebook that Amazon was offering a special promotion of Dorie Greenspan cookbooks.
 I was among the lucky who nabbed Around My French Table and Baking: From my home to yours for $10, including shipping.  We ate Dorie’s salmon with tapenade and Jerusalem artichokes roasted with garlic, and Three Beet Caviar with Endive and Goat Cheese and Nettle Frittata with Garlic and Ricotta (the latter two recipes from Deborah Madison’s inspirational book “Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets”  Urged by Dorie Greenspan, I whipped up a batch of creme fraiche, and while I was at it, replenished my supply of preserved lemons.
I’m ready for spring.

A tulip field in the nearby Skagit Valley.

Though Jeff is resigned to the fact that you won’t find me working in our garden (I’ve finally had to stop bragging about the 50 bulbs I planted on Daughter #1’s first day of pre-school 11 years ago), you will find me happily in the kitchen.
Soon the sun will become a more familiar presence and our markets will abound with fava beans (the fresh ones are labor intensive, but great in so many ways, especially with pecorino cheese) and pea vines and fiddlehead ferns and shoots of all sorts and morels, glorious morels.
I first learned about Betty MacDonald when my kids were little and we read the hilarious Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books, in which kids were cured of their bad habits by this magical woman who lived in an upside-down house (my favorite:  the kids who refused to take a bath and was allowed to get so dirty that her parents were able to plant radishes on her).
When daughter #1 started kindergarten and I was perhaps a little weepy, I decided that, like the mothers MacDonald wrote about, I would greet her after school with a freshly baked cake.
It didn’t last long, but over the years I’ve tried various recipes for French yogurt cake, which along with tartines, is a popular after school snack a la francaise.  
Dorie Greenspan has a recipe in her baking book, which I made this week, and Molly Wizenberg has a nice, lemony recipe which first appeared on her blog Orangette and can also be found in her book A Homemade Life.  I’m including it here.
It’s a nice pick-me-up when the sun goes behind the clouds or you are agonizing over the gradual and not always painless emergence of your bust, or for that matter, the inevitable drooping of said bust at mid-life.
Bon appetit.
If you are interested in having a modern version of the Betty MacDonald experience, check out my friend Joshua MacNichol’s Urban Farm Handbook:  City Slicker Resources for Growing, Raising, Sourcing, Trading and Preparing What You Eat.

Scentiment

Thanks to the miracle of antibiotics (which lasts for ten days, instead of eight), I’m my old, energetic self again and happy to get back to writing.  Sandra Tsing Loh gave me the perfect opening to begin a conversation on this bog about what an aunt of mine used to darkly refer to as “The Changes.”

But seriously, it’s Christmas Eve.  Does anybody really want to read or write about menopause?  I think not.

Instead I want to write in praise of sweet-smelling women.

When I was a little girl, my mother and all of the capable, well put-together women I knew each had her own distinctive scent. If you know anything about the alchemy of perfume, you’re aware that the same perfume mixes with an individual’s body chemistry to produce a unique aroma.

At holiday time and at other family gatherings, I loved breathing in the symphony of scent that was produced by a roomful of grandmothers and mothers and aunts and great-aunts. Greeting them at the door, gathering their coats and my great-grandmother’s fur stole, I’d give myself over to the mixture of scents that was my heritage, as the women of my family bustled around the kitchen to make things special.

Friends’ mothers and grandmothers had their own scent, just as their families had their own traditions.  If you complimented a women on her perfume, she’d proudly name her signature fragrance — Joy, Fracas, Diorissimo and, of course, Chanel Number 5.

My mother went through perfume phases — moving on from Jackie Kennedy-inspired French traditional elegance to freer pheromones.  Remember Charlie?  You could track the changes in social mores from the 1950s to the 1980s by the scents she wore.

These days there is less of a divide between girls and women.  I still dress pretty much the way I did when I was sixteen, in jeans and clogs and comfy sweaters.  So do most of my friends. Our kids call most of us by our first names.

So it makes me happy when my daughters identify me with my scent (these days it’s Euphoria by Calvin Klein, though I miss my more exotic past, which was accented with Samsara by Guerlain).

I hope it instills in them the same sense of trust and belonging that I so loved as a girl.

The other day we were in the mall and found ourselves in the perfume section at Nordstrom.  Though so many of the elegant touches I remember as a girl, like after-dinner mints, have faded away, you can still get perfume samples at Nordstrom.

Daughter #2 tried Chanel Number 5 and I explained its historical and cultural significance.  Then she pranced over to a display table with more contemporary scents and sprayed them on over the Chanel.

I cringed momentarily at the aromatic collision and then smiled, thinking of the joy that awaits her and her sister as they experiment with the scents that will accent their lives.

We drove home in a car that reeked with what I referred to as Katy Swift Bieber as the girls clutched their perfume samples.

I wish perfume was not just another commodity in the branding of a superstar.

Once in a while I encounter a woman who smells so good I feel compelled to  compliment her.  And once in a while someone asks me a question you don’t hear very much these days:  “What are you wearing?” and they are not wondering about my clothes.  My step mother-in-law (happy birthday ESMIL) is one of those sweet smelling women.  When she comes to visit, she unpacks her mini perfume containers and arrays them in the guest bathroom.  Her bathroom at home is similarly arrayed with beautiful glass vials. I hope she knows how happy this makes me.

There are women, such as Jane GrossDorie Greenspan, Jane Brody and Lisa Belkin, who I classify as “sweet-smelling women.”  I still have so much to learn from them.

My mother and grandmother are no longer alive to share holidays and traditions with.  Every year we make latkes to honor my grandmother and keep alive one small piece of my heritage, that can be passed on to my daughters.

And every day I wear perfume, partly for me, and partly for them, so that its scent is imprinted in their memories.

May you enjoy the sweet-smelling women in your lives during this holiday season.   If you’re so inclined, ask them about “The Changes” they’ve experienced.  And then let’s talk about it in the new year.

Happy Holidays.

Comfort Me with Apples*: Apple Cakes I Have Known and Loved

Last Sunday was one of those perfect fall days – crisp and colorful and cozy.  Still basking in the glow of a satisfying Saturday (three soccer games, including the final Seattle Sounders home game, which featured an unexpected last minute win) and the lingering aroma of sweet baked apples, courtesy of my daughter and her friend, that made our house smell as if it were being staged by a real estate agent, I got up, made pancakes for my family, went for a run and settled in to make apple cake for our Mother-Daugher book group.  As I mixed the ingredients, I reveled in the good fortune that finds me with a loving family, fun, supportive friends and an apple tree in my yard that is having an especially good yield of large, tangy fruit this year.

That got me thinking of all the apple cakes I have known and loved, since moving to Seattle sixteen years ago.

Seattle is a notoriously hard place to break into.  Non-natives like me share knowing nods when we talk about “Seattle Nice,” the phenomenon in which locals, even store clerks, are polite and downright friendly (a big change for us East-Coasters) but resist taking relationships to a deeper level.  It has something to do with their lives being full of family and friends they’ve had since grade school.  It’s nothing personal, they just don’t have room for too many other people.

From A Sensitive Liberal’s Guide to Life (www.uptightseattleite.com)

Having moved here from Washington, DC, a transient city, where few people have roots and you routinely socialize with people you just met five minutes ago, I was mystified by “Seattle Nice.”  So I tried to break in with apple cake.

In those early years, my “go-to” cakes were the Chunky Apple Walnut Cake from the Silver Palate cookbook and the Chunky Apple Walnut Cake from Oregon’s Cuisine of the Rain,  a book I hoped would hasten my transformation from outsider to authentic Pacific Northwesterner. Both cakes, which were made in Bundt pans and were therefore hard to screw up, elicited oohs and aahs when I brought them to work functions.

The years passed, I had kids (which, like dogs, are a sure-fire social ice-breaker), I made friends and I began moving out of my apple dessert comfort zone, managing to make two or three different apple recipes a season.

I knew better than to attempt apple pie and call it my own, because I don’t come from pie-making people, and I hadn’t then, and haven’t still, found that perfect foolproof pie crust that seals your credentials so that people are forever in awe of you.

Still, apple is the chicken of the fruit world, and you would have to live a thousand lifetimes to tackle all of the variations of golden, caramelized fruit alone or co-mingling with close or distant fruity relatives, encased in or free of dough, with or without vanilla or Calvados or nuts, topless or covered with something crisp. Sure these recipes seem nice, but do you have room in your life for them all?

June’s Apple Crisp from the Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, dubbed “Apple Glop” by my husband, was one of our first culinary standbys as a nascent family. As my confidence in the kitchen grew, I flirted with an apple-almond tart here, the odd apple galette there, and a few tartes Tatins. And then I discovered Santori Cake.

It came from Pasta and Co., one of Seattle’s first real foodie stores, where you could also purchase a perfect Balsamic vinegar- roasted chicken and an alluring array of pasta salads and delicious mini-cheesecakes for a picnic, like something out of a French movie, or a romantic evening at home. Santori Cake has all the elements of every delicious apple dessert you’ve ever tasted — gooey, caramelized cinnamon-spiced fruit with a crunchy exterior.  Best of all, people can’t thank you enough for baking it. It’s a cake worth exclaiming over.

While the Santori Cake was baking last Sunday, the idyllic afternoon gave way to minor tiffs and disappointments.  Sometimes our family reminds me of a crowded pan of apples — we bump up against each other, fighting for space and attention, and once in a while somebody gets burned.

 A few bites of the Santori Cake changed all that, at least for a little while.

Last spring R., a friend I have been getting to know on a deeper level, who warms those around her with her wisdom, made a delicious French apple cake for a book group meeting. The recipe came by way of Paris-based food blogger and pastry chef David Lebovitz, who got it from Dorie Greenspan, from her latest book Around My French Table.

Reader, I made that cake.

I also began following Dorie Greenspan and David Lebovitz’s blogs, which are very different. I aspire to be Dorie Greenspan.  I want to be friends with David Lebovitz.

On Facebook this week my “friend” David shared an article entitled How to Cook a Perfect Tarte Tatin, which compared the relative merits of various recipes for this classic French upside -down apple dessert.  For an inveterate recipe junkie like me, this article was a time-saving godsend.

Apple cakes are like friends. Though it takes a while to find the ones you want to establish meaningful relationships with, once you do, your life will be enriched.

It’s shaping up to be a very different weekend from the last one, blustery and gray and soggy with rain. We’ve already made one trip to the mall and one trip to the emergency room and it’s still only Friday night.

So though I probably won’t bake anything, with or without apples, it’s nice to feel at home and to have friends, real and virtual, to share recipes and stories and wisdom.

Santori:  The Apple Cake Recipe Customers Beg For

(from Pasta & Co. Encore, copyright 1997 by Marcella Rosene)

Ingredients:

3 cups sugar

1 Tablespoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

3/4 cup vegetable oil

3 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

6 cups (approximately 4 apples) peeled, cored and sliced tart cooking apples, such as Granny Smith

1 1/2 cups very coarsely chopped walnuts

3 cups flour

Preheat oven to 325 if using a metal pan; 300 if using a glass one.  Lightly butter a 9×13 inch shallow baking pan.

In a large bowl, combine sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, oil, eggs and vanilla.  Mix well and stir in apples and walnuts until they are coated with batter.  Stir in flour.  Batter will be quite firm.  Spoon into prepared pan.

Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour and 20 minutes if using a metal pan, 1 hour and 30 minutes if using a glass one.  Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick, baking for up to another 20 minutes.  When done, remove from oven and let cool on a rack before cutting into squares.

*Books are as comforting as apples.  For a nice, satisfying, cozy read this winter, I recommend former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl’s memoirs Tender At the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples and Garlic and Sapphires.