Thursday, November 4, 2010
I was fortunate to grow up in a place where people care about each other. Where they take care of one another during tough times. When a family suffers a loss, neighbors show up to offer condolences, help, and food. My mom is one of these neighbors that delivers food to the grieving. When I was growing up, she had a signature "funeral cake" that she would make to take to the family when someone in our community died. I think that the recipe was called Date Nut Coffee Ring. Since mom always seemed to make the cake for the same reason, my sisters and I re-named it "Funeral Cake". I can remember a number of afternoons that my sisters and I hopped down the school bus steps, ran up our long lane, crested the hill, burst through the front door to our house, and were encompassed in the warm, inviting smell of this cake baking away in the oven or cooling on the countertop. A little of that afterschool exuberance would go out of us as we put down our book bags and proceeded into our gaudy bright orange and dark brown 70's-style kitchen. Then one of us would ask, "Who died?" Because we knew. The comforting smell of that cake always preceded bad news. It might seem that I should dislike the smell of funeral cake- for what it represents. But the truth is, to this day it reminds me of a happy childhood in a place where people cared about one another and offered comfort to those dealing with a difficult time.
Yesterday, I found out that a friend from the parenting group I attend lost his mother-in-law. Emails fired between the members of our small group- trying to establish what everyone would make, who would deliver the food, and who was available to attend the viewing and funeral. In the 15 years of life that I have lived away from the small town community where I grew up and after numerous moves (even across the country), I have realized that a sense of community and desire to take care of each other is not unique to my hometown. I am proud to observe that people in every community take care of their neighbors. After being on both the giving and receiving end of this kindness, I just want to say, "Keep it up!"
I was still thinking about what to bake for my friend and his family when I arrived at our church last night, where I teach the 6th graders every Thursday. The topic this week: The ways that we are blessed and in turn, how we can be a blessing to others. After watching the first part of "It's a Wonderful Life", that old black and white Jimmy Stewart film (which just happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies), we talked about how even the smallest acts in our lives can impact others around us. When asked how they might be a blessing to others in only their day-to-day interactions, these smart 6th graders cited acts like holding back when they have something un-kind to say, smiling at or even standing up for another kid that gets picked on, taking the time to listen to someone, and showing respect to their parents or teachers so that they might have a better day...to name a few. We talked about what a big difference our actions (good and bad) can make in the lives of others. We concluded that no matter your orientation toward religion, being a blessing to others is just good practice. Some might call it being a good citizen. As we wrapped up, I gave them homework. They have to realize a person who is a blessing to them or an act that someone does for them that is a blessing AND they have to consciously "be a blessing" to someone else this week. In other words, they have to "pay it forward." I'm excited to hear what they report back to the class next Thursday.
I don't often issue non-cooking challenges to my readers, but here's some food for thought this weekend: How can YOU be a blessing to others? It can start with a gesture as small as opening a door for someone or giving the lady who is jamming up the self-checkout line at the supermarket (the one slowly and obliviously sorting though her coupons and THEN attempting to write an out-of-state check for her huge haul of groceries) a smile rather than an annoyed sigh or a dirty look, or even letting that goofball that just flew by everyone stopped on the interstate back into the flow of traffic. Hey, I've been the idiot that didn't change lanes when I was supposed to.
Sometimes, attempting to be a blessing to others is more uncomfortable, like talking to that "annoying" co-worker in the office (the one who everyone else rolls their eyes at and tries to dodge at the copy machine), then actually showing genuine interest in what he or she has to say. And sometimes being a blessing requires just a little bit of time and effort, like raking the lawn of a sick neighbor or throwing together a cake or casserole when someone has suffered a loss.
And that's where I found myself late last night, making THE funeral cake....
As I searched my mind and pantry for what I would make for my friend's family during this time of loss, I kept thinking about mom's funeral cake. The idea stuck with me throughout the day, and as soon as I finished teaching my class, I dialed my parent's house for the recipe. This recipe comes together very quickly, which worked to my advantage since I had a full evening and the designated delivery person from our parenting group would be calling to pick up my contribution in the morning. I wrote the recipe down via phone conversation with my dad. He pointed out that finding the Date Nut Bread that my mom used for the recipe had become increasingly difficult. He even wondered if Pillsbury still made the mix. When my mom called me a couple of hours later, she confirmed his claim that the bread mix was nearly non-existent on local grocery store shelves. With 30 minutes between the class I taught and pick-up time for my oldest daughter from her choir practice, I hit 2 stores...and struck out at both. I finally went with a Pillsbury nut bread mix, since the Date Nut Bread mix was nowhere to be found. I hope that it's still as good. : ) I will say that the house smelled like funeral cake as this baked, so hopefully, it's close. Here's what I did:
To begin, I greased and floured a bundt cake pan.
Then I melted a stick of butter in a saucepan and stirred in 1/2 cup of brown sugar until dissolved.
Now for some pecans...chop enough to yield 1/2 cup.
Add the pecans and a teaspoon of vanilla to the mix.
Then pour the butter mixture into the bundt cake pan.
Grab your bread mix. If you can find the date bread mix....go for it! I used this nut bread mix.
Ignore the directions on the box and mix it up with an egg and 1 cup of water. Beat for 75 strokes.
Pour the batter over the butter mixture. Then bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.
Let the cake cool for a couple of minutes...but NO MORE THAN 5 MINUTES! Then invert it onto your serving plate.
It's not the prettiest cake in the world, but on the two occasions that my mom didn't give this cake away (or maybe something went wrong with it and we got a taste), I remember it being absolutely delicious. Best of all, it's so easy!
Here's the recipe:
Nutty Coffee Ring
1 stick butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 tsp. vanilla
1 box Pillsbury Date Nut Bread mix or Nut Bread Mix
1 cup water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt cake or tube pan. In a small sauce pan, melt a stick of butter. Add the brown sugar and stir until dissolved. Stir in pecans and vanilla. Pour the mixture into the cake pan. Combine the bread mix, water, and egg. Beat 75 strokes with a whisk. Pour the batter over the butter mixture. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the cake tests done. Remove from oven. Do not let the cake cool for more than 5 minutes before inverting onto a serving plate.
Now, to quote one of my former high school teachers who said the same thing every single day as he dismissed us from class:
"Go. Be nice to each other."
Have a wonderful weekend everyone!