In our dining room window, there’s a Meyer lemon tree. It isn’t tall—perched on a stool, leaves and all, it sits maybe four feet high. We feed it water and compost, give it an occasional misting, and in return it gives us sweet, juicy lemons: this year, 23.
If it sounds far-fetched, believe me, originally, I agreed. I saw it in the garden center on sale, and wondered what right-minded Cape Codder would imagine their home was a good place for a heat-loving citrus tree.
But a tag tied to the leaves made me hesitate. “A cross between a true lemon and a Mandarin,” it read. “Grow indoors in pots across the northeast.” My husband’s birthday was coming up, and we have a tradition of giving trees—out in the yard there’s a 21st lilac and a 23rd cherry and a big 26th orchard of pears and mulberries. Lemons were a stretch, but in a big sunny window I thought we could swing it, maybe.
Besides, I had the perfect cake to celebrate. It was a lemon Bundt cake, passed on from Doug and Dianne Langeland of Edible Cape Cod magazine. They hadclipped the recipe from Saveur, taken in by the mention of Maida Heatter—America’s great Queen of Cake—and made it several times before we got a taste. By the time we came over they had perfected the baking time—just long enough that the cake was cooked through but the top still moist—and settled on the best bread crumb for the crust—Panko, the dry, flakey Japanese kind. The second I bit in, I was sold: tart, sweet, moist—what else was there to know?
Dianne e-mailed the recipe the next morning and I copied out the head note. “Toni Evins,” I printed, “Maida Heatter’s late daughter, who lived on East 62nd Street in Manhattan, created this tart, sweet cake. It became a favorite of the chic set after Craig Claiborne printed the recipe in the New York Times.” Apparently, Bill Blass and Nancy Reagan were fans. Me too.
With that in mind, I went ahead and bought the tree. I made the birthday cake, and then a replacement after the dog stole the leftovers, and before long Toni Evin’s creation became a staple in our culinary repertoire.
You don’t need a Meyer lemon tree to bake yours, but if you have a sunny window, I’d adopt one. They’re bright, and cheerful, and fruitful, and most importantly, they’re an excellent excuse for cake.
- Posted in Seasonal
Up to the age of 22, I spent my life solidly in leaf-peeping country. I grew up in Maine, on the coast, on a road tangled with white pines and red maples and tall, strong oaks. The population ebbed and flowed with the colors: full on red, empty by brown, and come green, filling up again.
For college, I moved to Vermont, and the rule held fast there, too. The start of classes marked the arrival of the lackadaisical, meandering drivers: Subarus pulled over shoulder-side, necks craned, mittens clutching cups of cider and big eyes gazing up toward the sky. Their windows danced with scarlets and mustards and vermilion as they cruised up and down Route 7, back and forth until the first snowfall came.
When I moved to the Cape, I realized that here, it’s a whole new game. Driving out I watched the trees shrink down, broad deciduous shoulders giving way to scrawny, tufted pitch pines along the edges and a swath of rusted oaks in between. I felt the town swell up with visitors in May, and let out with a whoosh come Labor Day. I waited for those crisp, bright fall days. The feeling came, but the colors were all a different paint. The last of the beachgoers left, and in their place settled muted oranges, browns, a quiet grey.
The second fall, the year I was 23, my friend Caitlin sent a letter from Vermont. “October 17th,” she began, “The foliage is back again.” There was a maple leaf tucked in—dried and pressed, a bright, carmine red, and on the back of the card, a recipe for a warm fall salad of roasted pumpkin and harvest veggies with chickpeas. I clipped it up on my recipe board and promised to write Caitlin back when I tried it that week. November passed and then December, and slowly, two years trickled by. I got used to the quiet and the grey, and new recipes covered the notecard up.
Last fall, in early October, when the squashes arrived at the farmers markets—Hubbard, butternut, acorn—I brought a sugar pumpkin home. I had a few lingering tomatoes and cucumbers, too, and a stockpile of red onions I was drying out for the fall. I rustled through my recipe pile, searching for inspiration, and a red maple leaf fluttered out.
I paged through my clippings, and at the bottom of the stack, there it was: a navy blue and yellow note card with Caitlin’s handwritten instructions scrawled out. I followed them to a tee: roasted the pie pumpkin, tossed it with garlic, boiled the chickpeas with onions and a bay leaf. I chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and made a dressing of olive oil and lime juice. I peppered and salted and mixed, and in less than an hour, I had on the table Caitlin’s dish.
It was perfect the way it straddled the seasons—the last of the fresh harvest, the first of the storage goods. It wasn’t cold tabouli, but neither was it hot soup. It walked the same middle ground as October, one day warm and bright, another that quiet, chilly grey. The next morning, I got out a note card and a pen, wrote Caitlin a letter and stuffed the envelope with the small tan leaf of a Cape Cod oak.
Elspeth’s recipe for pumpkin, chickpea, and harvest vegetable salad.
My mother is not a shopper. She feels about the activity the way most people feel about scrubbing the rings off the sides of the bathtub, maybe, or running in hundred-degree heat with heavy sweatpants on.
Unfortunately, she gave birth to two girls—a healthy, all-American, red-blooded pair. We lusted after mother-daughter shopping trips to the outlets, to the mall, downtown to get stationery or art supplies. I can count on one hand, I think, the number of times my mother actually got excited about taking us out to look for a new pair of shoes or a party dress. Mostly, she was content to ship us off with the other moms, and we were content to go.
The exception to all this was food. My mother started bringing my sister and I to the farmers market as very little girls. It took place on the long, wide town green twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, from 8 a.m. to noon. It was the one place we had ever seen her excited to shop, and we happily took the cue. We traveled together down the vendor rows, three pairs of eyes widening together at the size of a farmer’s beets, the sheen of another’s apples, the way the woman with preserves gave her pickles such crunch. We knew it was the closest to a mother-daughter shopping trip we were ever going to get and reveled in every minute of every visit.
There was one visit every year, though, that we particularly looked forward to. That was the annual blueberry pick-up, the day in August when our 20-pound fruit order from Rudd Douglas came in. Rudd was at the market every week, selling organic potatoes and other produce and all sorts of perennials. But come August he’d start bringing the blueberries in—tiny, sweet, wild Maine blueberries by the pint and by the quart, and if you put in a special order, by the pound.
We always ordered a 20-pound box. My mother would freeze most of the berries for winter pies and muffins and pancakes and simply sprinkling, thawed, on cereal, but pick-up day was an all-you-can-eat sort of affair. Cardboard has never felt so promising as it did on those August afternoons when my sister and I unfurled the box, then dug in, stuffing ourselves with handful after handful of ripe Maine fruit. We’d keep reaching in until our bellies hurt, but that one day, my mother didn’t care.
Of course, partly that’s because she knew we’d still save room for the pie. You can’t buy 20 pounds of blueberries and not make at least one, and she usually made three or four—one to keep, and a few to give away. That evening, once the freezer was full, she’d roll out a crust and toss a quart and a half of the berries with sugar and lemon juice, and then stick the pie plate in the oven with a cookie sheet below, hoping it would catch at least some of the mess. For blueberry pie, my mother has always simply used the recipe in the Joy of Cooking with a homemade sweet crust. (I tried playing around with other variations, but from what I can tell, it isn’t worth it. Irma’s recipe is simple, easy, and best of all, good.)
The pies were invariably soupy. The tapioca called for in the Joy of Cooking apparently had nothing on the torrent of fresh, juicy fruit, and more than a few pies set the smoke detector off. But it didn’t matter—we ate it hot on the deck with bowls and spoons and a pile of creamy, melting, vanilla ice cream soup.
When I moved to the Cape, I discovered that the tiny berries aren’t for sale at farmers markets anywhere. You can buy the big, high-bush berries to be sure, but to me, those never taste like home. So when I stumbled across the berries in the woods—when I found out that on certain sunny, oak-shaded hills you can find wild bushes, blue to the hilt—I filled up two quart buckets before the day was up. I can’t tell you where I pick, but I can say this: At the end of every August, I know exactly what pie we’ll be having for dessert.
- Posted in Food