Sunday, May 31, 2009

Flan de Leche

I was given this recipe in 1962 by Senora Diaz, a Cuban refugee who was my neighbor when I was at University of Florida. It’s been a favorite for our family ever since – and I always double (or triple) it. Last night I took it along (a triple recipe) to serve as dessert at a pizza party out in Shelton Laurel.

1 can condensed milk (sweetened condensed, NOT evaporated -- there's a real difference) (I use one can nonfat to two cans regular when I triple the recipe)
4 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350. In a large bowl mix the condensed milk with an equal amount of water, using the empty can as a measure. Beat the eggs and add them. Mix all together thoroughly. Add vanilla and mix in well. Set mixture aside.

You will need a lidded ovenproof container (I use corning ware) to bake the flan in and you will need a larger pan. Put the container in the pan with a few inches of water and heat on top of the stove.

In a heavy frying pan, melt the sugar over high heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Sugar should begin to foam and smoke. Take from heat at once for a sweeter, less bitter caramel coating or let darken a bit according to your preference. (we like it darker – kids usually prefer it lighter.)

Now pour into your heated mold and turn to coat sides. Return mold to water bath and pour in egg and milk mixture. Cover mold (foil works too), then cover water bath, put in oven and bake till a knife comes out clean, 45 minutes to one hour or a good bit longer for larger quantities and depending on the type of mold you have used. Test frequently because the lovely silky texture will be lost if you overcook (though the flan will still taste good.)

Best very cold, therefore make it the day before and chill overnight.

Almost everyone loves this stuff and it is really, really easy!!

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Weekend Miscellany

Friday was devoted to proof-reading THE DAY OF SMALL THINGS, lips moving and carefully reading aloud in my mind. It's the very best way to make sure I have the dialect right, that I am making sense, that I'm not repeating the same word in a sentence (a common failing of mine), and that the words flow easily when read aloud.

I got as far as page 147 (out of 401) and have been charmed to find that I keep wanting to see what's next.

Since I spent most of the past year working on the novel in a very different configuration, the story I am reading now is almost new to me, as those major changes were made quickly and there was no time for me to read and reread again and again till the story was fixed in my mind.

Now, with a bit more distance between me and the previous version, I can really appreciate how right Herself was in having me pare away that other subplot.

The pictures? Just odds and ends. The yellow sedum at the top is called Hundred (or is it Thousand?) Acre sedum because one small plant, given time and rain, will spread over vast areas.

The second is a picture of the pond with raindrops dancing on its surface. And the third is a tiny box turtle that Justin found while weed eating and brought in to show us.

And last? Bobotie, made from a recipe Eleanor posted over at Thatchwick Cottage. An Indonesian dish finds its way to North Carolina via South Africa and we agree, it was lekker (tasty)!

Thanks, Eleanor!

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Friday, May 29, 2009


. . . all 401 pages of The Day of Small Things came Fed-Exing back into my life yesterday afternoon.

I'd just returned from a trip to town -- P.O., bank, recycling center, grocery, and a cup of coffee with the blogger known as estaminet -- who is in the area visiting family and is as charming as her blog.

Before I'd even unloaded the groceries or fed the dogs (it was past the sacred four o'clock chow time, they kept telling me), I had to get into the package and flip through the pages, in shameless search for Herself's words of blue ink praise.

There were a gratifying number of them -- as well as some very nice comments from the copy editor (in red pencil). And evidently, no major changes called for, no more of those 'Flat!' warnings or exhortations to 'Milk it!' -- meaning to stretch an exciting moment even farther.

Now I have to settle down to the painstaking task of reading every word as if I'd never seen it before in an attempt to catch typos and the like. I have to consider carefully if I've phrased things as well as I might, if Miss Birdie sounds like Miss Birdie, if Calven sounds like a modern day teenager.

I have to polish this baby till it shines and I have to get it back to Herself by June 22. Very doable, since as I said, there don't seem to be any major changes called for.

Oh, I know a few places where I'd like to insert a paragraph or two but on the whole, as I buzzed through the pages last night in search of every last blue ink comment, I kept thinking, "Hey! This is pretty good! Ooh, that was a nice bit there. Wow! Did I write that? Cool!"

Now, a few weeks past the major re-do of the story, I'm able to appreciate the new shape of the novel without thinking about the part I removed. And I can honestly say -- "Yep, I'm right pleased with Birdie's book!"
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Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Go-To Computer Guy

I call him my 'other' son. Cory's been a part of our life since he and Justin became friends at NC School for Science and Math. They were room mates through much of Chapel Hill and now that Cory and his girlfriend live in Asheville, they are out at the farm on many a weekend. And I am shamelessly taking advantage of his computer expertise.

Yesterday he helped me get set up with SKYPE so that I can have a video call next week with Karen B.'s bookclub -- in New Jersey. Such fun. Last night I did a trial run with Karen and she and I just sat there staring at each other on our computer screens and saying, "This is so cool."

Cory is also a terrific professional photographer. That's something else he does on his weekends out here. For some wonderful closeup shots of bugs and flowers, check out his website. There is a luna moth of such beauty . . .

His shots make mine (below) look pretty puny. (I'll excuse myself by saying that he has an MFA in photography from Savannah College of Art and Design, plus a really spiffy camera.)

When Cory and Justin were rooming together at Chapel Hill, Justin commonly availed himself of Cory's always superior computer equipment. But then came the terrible morning when the printer jammed as Justin was trying to print out the paper which was due in a class starting in about ten minutes.

Cory to the rescue! "Go to class," he said. "Sit by the window," he said and Justin took off on a run, sliding into a seat by the window just in time to answer "Here."

Roll was taken; the professor spoke of this and that and at last began to go up and down the class collecting papers. On either side of Justin, classmates were raising their eyebrows, noticing his entire lack of a paper to hand in.

As the professor reached the desk just before his, Justin put his hand out the window.

And in one smooth flourish, retrieved the freshly printed paper from his unseen benefactor and presented it to the (no doubt) puzzled professor.

Everyone needs a go-to computer guy.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Garden Walkabout

Between rain showers yesterday, I managed to get out in the yard and garden for a while.

I don't know the name of this little coral-colored rose but it's one of my favorites.

It's been there in the bed by the green house for about twenty years, at a guess and, if past years are any guide, will bloom from now till frost.

There is a nice flush of shitakes on the inoculated logs -- I foresee another asparagus/shitake stir fry in our future.

The spiderwort is blooming in the creepy garden.

The banties are happy in their chicken tractor.

In the herb garden, the sage is blooming and fat bumble bees wiggle their way deep into the blossoms.

The box beds were full of weeds which have outdone themselves with all the rain. I filled a tub to take to the big chickens and threw a wad of crisp green chickweed to the banties -- along with assorted slugs, earthworms, and wood lice.

Across the road from the garden I spotted a clump of Blue-eyed Grass.

This tiny (the bloom is about the size of my little finger's nail) wild flower is a member of the iris family and though not exactly showy is utterly charming.

A lovely find on a day in late spring.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Good Grooming for Dogs and Cats

A thing of beauty is a joy forever. This is Bear (the inspiration for Elizabeth's Ursa) as she usually looks --a wet and muddy undercarriage and bits of nature clinging to her fur. Very soon she'll be getting her summer haircut -- I usually just work at it over a period of days with our hair cutting scissors but last year I invested in an electric clipper.

It still takes a while but the result will be an attractive summer-weight Bear with all the interesting dreadlocks gone.

Eddie gets the occasional dreadlock himself, usually back on his hind quarters but one approaches him with scissors at one's own peril. And electric clippers?


He will, however, allow the dogs a certain latitude.

Though he rarely washes himself, Eddie loves to lick the dogs' faces, hoping that they will return the favor.

Here, Eddie cleans Jack's face while Bear grooms Eddie.

Maggie looks away, wondering why we allow so many uncouth dogs om the bed.


Bear is the only dog that will actually bathe Eddie. She probably mistakes him for her own.

The idea of cat fur in his mouth is appalling to William. He's not thrilled at the idea of being licked by a cat larger than himself either.

Maybe he's worried Eddie's just tasting -- with a view to eventual consumption.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Ba's Pound Cake

Ba was my maternal grandmother and she probably made this pound cake once a week. It was almost always around, there on the counter by the refrigerator, under the aluminum cake dome with the wooden acorn knob on top. It is a dense cake -- but pure, basic goodness -- requiring no frosting. If somehow it stays around long enough to get stale, it's good toasted.

The original pound cake required a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, and a pound of eggs. That makes this a half pound cake.

2 sticks butter (1/2 pound) at room temperature (softish but not melting)
1 2/3 cup sugar
2 cups flour (unbleached -- and I don't sift)
5 eggs (also at room temperature)
1 tablespoon vanilla

That was Ba's recipe -- I have taken to adding the following in these approximate amounts:

3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Cream butter and sugar thoroughly, by hand or with an electric mixer. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each one. Add flour and (optional) spices; mix in; add vanilla. Mix thoroughly.

Put batter in very well-greased tube pan. Put in cold oven; turn to 350 F; bake one hour.

Turn out to cooling rack but be sure to try a slice while it's still warm.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Old Home Place

"Come on over and take a look at what we've done inside," Mearl's son called to me as I stopped at the mailbox on my way to the grocery.

Mearl's been gone a good while now, but her family keep the yard and fields of the home place as meticulously as if she were sitting on the front porch watching or even swinging a weedeater herself.

Now they're tackling the interior with fresh paint everywhere and new flooring for the kitchen. It looks fresh and cheerful, but I can still see it as it was -- overflowing with family pictures . . . a collection of pig figurines . . . two recliners and a sofa . . . and Mearl.

"Well, what's a-gonna happen?" she'd marvel, if I hadn't been to see her recently, raising her hands as if I were a miraculous and unlooked for visitor.

What's a-gonna happen is what I wonder.

Mearl's family has put the home place on the market, but in the current economy a buyer may be slow in showing up.

It will be interesting to see who eventually moves in across the hard road from our farm. We hope they'll be right for the place.

Walking through the old barn, on my way back to my car, I thought about all the use the old place had seen -- the mules that had been stabled there below, the untold quantities of tobacco that had cured and had been graded and handed just above me -- and of the hours and days and years of work and life the old place has known.

The clay floor is beaten hard with many a step; the stall door's wooden bolt is smooth with the touch of many a calloused hand.

And bright spirits seem to dance around the old barn where once they labored.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Just Lurking

I tossed a handful of fish food pellets into the goldfish pool and one of the snakes that had been relaxing on the flat rocks at the edge launched itself into the water like Michael Phelps going for the gold. Sure that I was about to witness a Wild Kingdom moment, I started taking pictures.

(No, I didn't try to interfere and save the goldfish; if it weren't for the snakes we'd have goldfish overpopulation. It's a small pool and can only provide oxygen for a limited number of fish.)

Most of the fish you see are probably too big for the snake to mess with, but there are many smaller fish -- probably last year's babies -- that you don't see -- as goldfish start out dark and only get their color slowly and in patches. When they're little and vulnerable, they stay hidden from snakes and other predators which include, I'm afraid, their parents.

It was interesting to see how totally the goldfish ignored the snake, even when it swam very close, sometimes sliding right over them.

But in the end there was no murder and mayhem: the snake observed; the fish fed; and finally the snake swam back to the side, oozed up onto the rocks, and resumed its sunbath.

It seemed I had tuned into Peaceable Kingdom.

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Rainbows and Root Canals

Life has a funny way of evening things out -- at least, that's what I was thinking as I left the dentist yesterday.

On Tuesday I was riding high -- buoyed up by the fabulous news of the Anthony nomination. On Wednesday I went to the ophthalmologist -- routine every few years checkup -- and was told that it was time for me to get 'real' glasses -- bifocals, no less -- to replace the drugstore reading glasses that have been my standbys for a very long time now. And, oh yes, the doctor could see the beginning of cataracts -- nothing to worry about just now but somewhere down the line, steps will have to be taken . . .

Bummer. But, I told myself, no big deal -- they can fix cataracts these days. And I've been lucky to avoid 'real' glasses all these years.

On Thursday it was off to the dentist for the semi-annual tooth cleaning. I mentioned a little tenderness I'd been noticing on my left lower jaw . . . the x-ray revealed an abscessed tooth.

So I'm signed up for a root canal soon.

I remember my mother-in-law saying when she was about the age I am now -- "After sixty, it's maintenance, maintenance, maintenance."

I left the dentist's office in a somber mood only to have a very pleasant surprise. The former concrete block box at the end of town that has been slowly being transformed into a quaint little book shop from a fairy tale was open!

I have always loved bookstores, including those selling used books. (Though my feeling are a little mixed about seeing my own books for sale -- since that's a sale that won't give me that magnificent sum of 42 cents garnered from the sale of a new book. )

No matter -- I'm delighted the Lapland Bookshop and Arts is open for business and brightening up the end of Main Street. (Why Lapland? Because that was our town's original name till it was changed sometime in the 1800's.)

I met the owners, Mick and Stacy, and it was fun to hear Mick say that he was in the midst of reading Signs in the Blood-- and was just at the part where Little Sylvie is having a baby.

The shop has only been open a few days and there will be more books coming -- but already there is an interesting assortment. I browsed the titles of NC history and couldn't resist a volume on Madison County Heritage.

By the time I got home, happy in the knowledge of a new nearby bookstore to browse, things were back in proportion. Root canals and cataracts no longer had the power to spoil my day.

We got the tomatoes set out and some more garden work done and then, as we ate supper, looked out the window to see a faint rainbow in the east -- surprising because there's been no rain.

Life is good.