Celebrating The Small
I recently attended a delightful party for a friend who was celebrating both her birthday and retirement from the workforce. For gifts, she requested that each person bring a special rock that she might incorporate into her garden. Her suggestion was eagerly taken up and her friends gifted her with an intriguing assortment of rocks, from a great, jagged gold-ore streaked lump to a surprising number of smaller stones shaped like hearts. I took her a tiny, wave-smoothed rock with a perfect hole seemingly drilled into it. It looked artificial but as I found it on a local beach, I can only assume it was the mysterious product of natural forces.
Her little garden was an enchanting miniature, a strip that wound from her back door round one side of her small cottage to the front. A mossy stone-edged path split the small space into two beds and a minute terrace was just big enough for a couple of deck chairs. Thanks to shared walls and fences, the space is very private and just big enough to fit her very favorite plants. She lives in a cluster of cottages that share a small green common space and a little club house, so parties can flow from the small house into the common areas. I’m fascinated by such convivial small places these days, as I’m hoping to sell my big house and find a little one with shared grounds where I can spend the next chapter of my life.
Big Garden, Little Hideaway
It does seem a bit ironic that I’ve spent the last few years creating a big handsome garden for my big handsome house. I made mounded beds of sandy loam topped with compost and top dressed with digested dairy manure. The excellent drainage has encouraged plants I’ve struggled to please in the past and the garden has filled in fast. After seeing that snug little cottage garden, mine now seems vast, yet it’s just a fraction of what I used to have. It’s far less work than the old mixed borders that were 200+ feet in length and anywhere from 10-30 feet deep. Those days are certainly gone and I don’t really miss them, perhaps because I have so many public gardens to play in.
However, just as emptying my house demands a mix of rigorous discipline and heart, scaling back a garden requires us to deeply consider which plants are most like friends. I never quite feel at home until favorite books are on the shelves, and my garden doesn’t feel like mine unless it holds cherished old favorites as well as the newest, hottest hybrids. I recently read an article that challenged the current fad for “home purity” that encourages us to divest of anything we have a sentimental attachment to. The author was speaking as the child of refugees who were forced to leave everything behind. For one thing, starting completely fresh can make us feel anchor-less and adrift. For another, she views the urge to divest our homes of everything with past associations as a consumer-culture phenomenon, based on the (probably unconscious) assumption that anything and everything can be replaced at need. Food for thought?
A Grown Up Birthday Cake
While you ponder, here’s a toothsome recipe to try. For the party potluck, I took along my tweaked version of a French birthday cake. It has a wonderful texture, thanks to coarsely ground almonds, and a sophisticated flavor, thanks to lemon zest and whole milk yogurt. It goes together very quickly and the only fussy parts are rubbing the fresh lemon zest into the sugar and slicing the cooled cake in half (use the longest bread knife you have) so you can fill it with your jam of choice. I prefer my own homemade raspberry jam, but red currant jam is also lovely. In France the cake is often served with whipped cream but I like it plain and so did my fellow party goers, most of whom asked for the recipe. So here it is!
French Almond Yogurt Cake
1 cup organic all purpose flour (local tastes best)
2/3 cup coarsely ground raw almonds
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup cane sugar
zest of 2 lemons
1/2 cup plain whole milk yogurt
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup avocado or vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter a heavy 9 x 2 inch round cake pan and set it aside. In a small bowl, combine flour, ground almonds, baking powder and salt, set aside. In a large bowl, combine sugar and lemon zest, rubbing between your fingers until fragrant and well blended. Add the yogurt, eggs, and vanilla and blend well. Stir in dry ingredients, then gently fold in the oil with a rubber spatula (batter will be pretty thick). Scrape it into your buttered pan and tap the pan lightly. Bake at 350 F until set and golden-edged (35-40 minutes). Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, invert onto a flat plate then flip back onto the rack to cool completely. When cool, slice cake in half horizontally and spread middle with jam, lemon curd, or whatever you like. Serves at least one or up to a dozen.