Sunday, July 29, 2012

My Grandfather's Garden

My grandparents lived in a purple house. It was in a less-than-great neighborhood of plain row houses in the flats of San Francisco, and I remember staring out of the window of the car as we drove over there. Gray. White. Brown. Gray. Gray. White. Brown. Gray. Gray. Beige. White. Purple. 

There it was. Sticking out like a sore thumb.

The hallway was dark, and the stairs creaked on the way up. The living room furniture was heavy, with scratchy, lumpy upholstery. Faded handmade lace doilies covered the end tables, and there was stuff everywhere, gathering dust. The bathroom had dingy honeycomb tiles on the floor and a clunky cranky toilet with a chain pull that scared me.  The place smelled like old people and the dresser in the master bedroom had pill bottles everywhere.  We had the run of the place, but we spent all our time lying on their huge four poster bed, a collective of cousins watching a console TV and eating cheese nibbles while my mom and her sisters and brothers gossiped and laughed and hashed through old grievances with each other at the formica table in the kitchen.  The bed was enormous, soft, and comfortable, covered with fat pillows and hand-stitched quilts, even in the summertime.  So what if there were things under the bed that hadn't seen the light of day for years? It felt like an island of relative safety in this rickety, messy house. We kids flocked to it, lying every which way and giggling. Our grandmother seemed to vaguely disapprove of the whole thing, but she lay up in the bed with us, watching soap operas through her cat's eye glasses with her ample frame in some shapeless dress, hollering into the kitchen with a still-thick island accent every once in a while when she needed something.  

Me, in the living room of the purple house

The contrast with my other grandparents' house could not have been more stark.  There everything was immaculate and just so. My sister and I slept in matching twin beds in an attic with flowered wallpaper that was only a tiny bit musty. The delicate china dinner plates and my grandmother were equally frail, elegant and fragile. No one yelled. We never even set foot in my grandparents' bedroom, much less sprawled across the covers with our shoes on.  We could barely breathe from all the best behavior-ing we were doing.

In the quiet house, Gee Gee, as we called him, kept parakeets in an aviary in the backyard, and had a garage full of memorabilia and antiques, all neatly catalogued and indexed.  He had old cameras, binoculars and kaleidoscopes. Tools and gadgets, buttons and trinkets. Instruments and books. He was a pack rat extraordinaire, and a fastidious one at that. As little girls, we loved the birds and had no time for the rest. We hardly noticed that he had a whole world down there under the stairs, where he tinkered away happily much of the day. 

In the purple house, my grandfather had a garden. He grew sunflowers in the cold San Francisco fog that were taller than my dad, the tallest person I knew.  Corn and tomatoes, melons and beans. To us it seemed like a wild jungle, but to him it was perfectly ordered, and he could coax almost anything to grow in that plain patch of ground amid high walls and fences. He would walk down the splintery wooden stairs to his yard, with scraps from the kitchen, his felt hat on his head, and perhaps a cigar.  He stayed out there for hours, in shirtsleeves and overalls, weeding and feeding and sometimes reading the paper as the sun went down. Then he'd slowly climb back up the stairs, the newspaper wrapped around a heap of giant zucchinis and peppers, and step into the chaos, smiling.  

My grandfather (the one with the garden), holding my sister

I don't miss a lot of things about those visits.  The hushed sterility at one house, the cluttered free-for-all of the other.  But I wish I'd spent more time sorting treasure under the stairs.  And I wish I'd spent more time in my grandfather's garden.

Zucchini from my garden

Zucchini Cream Cheese Pound Cake
From Joy The Baker's fab cookbook. I knew as soon as it was delivered this was a book I'd be using all the time. It's gone right to the select crew of favorites on the cook shelf.  Order one immediately and thank me later.  The unexpected use of zucchini makes the pound cake wonderfully moist and satisfying, and then the touch of cinnamon completely wins you over.  I brought this to a gathering of teenage boys, thinking it'd be the adult dessert, but the boys practically ate the entire thing before we got a chance.

3 c. flour
generous 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
2 c. sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
1 c. (2 sticks) butter, melted & cooled
2 c. shredded zucchini

Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour a Budnt pan and set aside.
Whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon together in a medium bowl, and set that aside, too.
In a stand mixer or with a hand mixer and a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and sugar together at medium speed for a few minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for about a minute after each addition, the add the vanilla. With the mixer on low, add the melted butter, then increase speed to medium high and beat until velvety smooth, about three more minutes.

Reduce the mixer speed to low, and add the flour mixture. Mix just until incorporated, then fold in the zucchini by hand, scraping sides and bottom of the bowl to make sure all the flour is mixed in, too. The batter will be quite thick.

Spoon into the prepared pan, and bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 15-20 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Cover the whole cake with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting.

Click to print this recipe!

Fruited Zucchini Muffins
Adapted from a recipe by Gourmandise Desserts.  If you sign up for their newsletter, awesome stuff like this comes right to your inbox.  Plus, their cooking classes are fantastic.  The original called for strawberry jam.  I, of course, used some of my famous peach butter.

1 3/4 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 eggs
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. strawberry or apricot jam (or peach butter)
2 1/2 c. grated zucchini

Preheat oven to 350. Coat muffin tins with non-stick baking spray and set aside.  This makes about 15-18 normal size muffins, so you'll need two. You can also bake these as mini muffins or in loaf pans, if you like.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon.

In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil, sugar and apricot jam. Add the zucchini and mix until combined. Fold in flour mixture and stir until just combined.

Pour into prepared muffin pans or pans and bake 25-30 minutes (for muffins) or 40-45 minutes (for loaves).  Cool completely.

Serve plain, or make cupcakes by frosting with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting.

Click to print this recipe!

Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting
I think I'm just going to end every post with "frost with Brown Sugar Cream Cheese Frosting".  It's a good motto.

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, softened
1/3 c. packed brown sugar
1 tsp. molasses
pinch of salt
1 3/4 c. sifted powdered sugar
2 tsp. vanilla

In a large bowl or a stand mixer, beat cream cheese at medium high speed for a minute, until it is soft and fluffy.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, then add the butter, and beat for another minute or so, until the mixture is well combined.  Add the brown sugar and molasses and beat for another 30 seconds.  Add the salt and the powdered sugar, then the vanilla.  Adjust speed to low and mix until almost almost all of the powdered sugar is incorporated.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl again, then mix on medium speed until frosting is smooth and soft, and all the powdered sugar has disappeared.  Use immediately.

Click to print this recipe!

My grandmother did make a mean zucchini bread, out of necessity. I never got her recipe, but in my case, one huge specimen made a whole cake and tons of muffins, with squash to spare. 

Giant zucchinis clearly run in the family

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