I think it had been ten years since I used a gas pump like this. When we pulled up next to it in Wallace, Idaho, in the only vehicle in sight without a gun rack, I should have seen it as some sort of omen: Our weekend in Montana would be a time warp, in the very best way.
The drive to Big Sky brought the sense of distance from real life that any good vacation requires. Seven hundred miles is a long way, no matter how fast you go. As we hummed along I-90, we had time to realize we were driving the same road we’d taken on our way to Seattle almost exactly a year ago. We had time to take in what’s happened since then, to think of how much of Seattle has revealed itself to us, and how we’ve adjusted. And we had time to think back on our own wedding, and just sit, often quietly, together. Time went so much more slowly than usual, which meant we could simply enjoy having it.
Josh and Dani had somehow created a wedding bubble in and around Rainbow Ranch and a few big, comfy cabins along the Gallatin River. The guests were one big family, existing in that very moment for no other reason than to support and celebrate them. The bubble enveloped us the moment we arrived.
The morning of the wedding, about fifteen women gathered on my cabin’s porch, where Sarah, an ashtanga teacher from Boise, lead a vinyasa session in the hot Montana sun that made me wonder why anyone ever decided yoga should be practiced indoors.
The wedding itself brought me into the moment in a way I experience just too rarely – funny thing about time, I always seem so acutely aware of the past and future, and never quite aware enough of the present.
The ceremony tent was surrounded by prayer flags, both the traditional kind they’d brought back from recent travels, and homemade flags, made from fabric squares on which we’d all written our impromptu wedding wishes the night before.
There was very little pomp and circumstance, which I loved. Dani and Josh were wandering around outside before the actual ceremony, hanging out, looking dapper and elegant but not coiffed or artificial.
When they made their official entrance, heading toward a tree branch chuppah carried by their parents, I got an odd sense of watching them from a day far, far in the future, maybe telling their story like a fairy tale. I knew it then, that they’d be forever, and so did everyone else that was there. It was calming, and comforting, in a way, not feeling I had to wish them a fulfilling, successful, happy life because I felt so sure that what lies ahead for them is exactly that. As we watched them exchange vows, I think we all felt a surge of excitement that went beyond our thrill of seeing them get married; we felt that a union like theirs might (pardon the cliche, but there’s one good way to say it) make the world a better place.
We all shared a few loaves of challah, toasted the bride and groom, and Josh and Dani circled all 120 of us up into one giant ring of people, to say thank you for being their family. Then we partied.
The food was, of course, delicious and creative. (The Rainbow Ranch is known for its grub, and apparently they’re just as good at it when serving giant crowds buffet-style.) The appetizers were actually interesting: Elk carpaccio toasts, carrot pancakes with smoked trout and horseradish, and vegetarian potstickers, both steamed (for the bride) and fried (for the groom, I guess, or the rest of us). I can’t say I expected Grandma to enjoy them so much:
I hope she didn’t notice, but I watched her all night. My own Jewish grandmother is gone, and I felt some comfort following her, watching her alternate between ordering people around and pretending to be completely oblivious, just like mine used to do. I wish you could see her make-up up close.
The whole dinner was cooked in a giant gazebo/outdoor kitchen, so we watched as they seared up (perfectly cooked) game sausage, London broil (wait – was that beef, or buffalo?), salmon, etc. (There was no lack of choice.)
This was the view behind my chair at dinner:
And this was my view across the way (yes, she was that short):
We dove into sweet, moist salmon with a chive-garlic pesto (which I must make at some point, to share with you); a spunky, light, thin-cut slaw with cabbage, peppers, and celery seeds; the steak with a Burgundy sauce . . .then the carrot cake Piper and Molly made, complete with little skiers for the bride and groom:
Luckily, Josh and Dani just set up slightly more permanent tent stakes in Mazama, WA, so we didn’t really have to say goodbye.
Instead, we hopped across the street to Jake’s Horses, and took a beautiful two-hour horseback ride up above Porcupine Creek. I loved Matt the Horse for schlepping me up 1500 feet for views of Lone Peak and much of the Gallatin River valley, but truth be told, I’m still not sitting all that comfortably.
We took our time coming home. We hit Taco del Sol in Missoula, where immediately after entering a bum passed out against the door, so we were sort of trapped there for a while. The city of Missoula must be a little hard-up for interesting emergencies; the bum brought four vehicles and no fewer than eight officers.
We also stopped in Spokane for a meal with John and Hilary at Elk Public House, whose devotion to our own 74th Street Ale House (a stone’s throw from where I’m sitting) was literally in lights (their website actually gives 74th Street’s gumbo recipe):
After promising ourselves we’d keep it light, since we had another five hours of driving to go, we chowed on intensely buttery garlic bread, topped with caramelized onions and gorgonzola cheese. Its memory followed us home.
And now, in Seattle, time has been fast forwarded, and it’s as fall as the crisp red leaves on the Japanese maple next door. My fingers are freezing. It’s gray gray gray and there’s a light, dusty blush on our grapes, and the sun’s hours are suddenly much more limited.
It must have happened when we were gone. But I’m ready. I hesitate to say I wish this year would end, but when I start counting the recipes down from 100, later this week, part of me will celebrate, for sure.
Recipe 262 of 365: Caramelized Onion and Gorgonzola Toasts
Slice an onion into 1/4″ half-circles. Heat a large skillet over medium-low heat, add a swirl of olive oil, then the onions. Season with salt and pepper, then cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until deeply caramelized. (Don’t rush it, they will eventually begin to turn brown.) Add a thinly sliced garlic clove, and cook ten more minutes, stirring. Meanwhile, slice half a baguette in half lengthwise, and spray or brush both cut sides with olive oil. Toast the bread for 5 minutes in a 400 degree oven (or grill it in a panini press). Pile the onion/garlic mixture on top of the bread, sprinkle with crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, and warm another 5 minutes in the oven. Cut into chunks and serve warm.
I’ve never quite understood why some people insist on keeping family recipes secret. Isn’t bringing people together the point of a family recipe? And doesn’t sharing recipes tend to bring people together? Why do you read hogwash?
Now, if a bakery considers a recipe proprietary information (The Boise Co-Op’s lemon cookie comes to mind first), I’m inclined to respect the decision immediately. After all, the bakery business is tough, and one perfect recipe butters less bread if it’s sold from competing dessert cases.
Family recipes seem different. If a grandmother’s best pie makes a person smile, shouldn’t that person have the right to feel those sensations – the flavor of the filling, the snap of the crust, the warmth of a friend’s smile – even if she isn’t directly related to the grandmother? And, as is the case with the bakery recipe, shouldn’t the family know that the pie will never taste the same – really the same – if someone else (besides the grandmother or her direct descendants) is making it?
But. BUT. As much as I disagree, I try not to step on recipe-hoarders’ toes. I do try. If they want to skim joy off the top of other peoples’ lives and deprive them of sustenance, that’s their prerogative.
Take, for example, the blueberry cake I eat at least once a year with the Trafton clan. It’s as simple as cake gets, a white butter batter stirred together with a spoon, studded with blueberries, and plopped into whatever pan is handy. At every summer celebration, it fills a kitchen in a house on the Maine coast with a hot blueberry breeze, and when it’s served, slathered with cream cheese frosting, everything else stops.
Now, I adore Mom Trafton. But from the first time I met her (and tasted the cake), I knew that I’d only get her blueberry cake if it was baked in a Trafton kitchen. When we saw her last summer, seven years or so since we met, she gave me a squeeze and told me I was special. I think she actually said “You guys are honorary Traftons.” In that clan, there’s hardly a higher compliment. I smiled instantly.
Never one to let an opportune moment slide by, I squeezed her back and said something bright, like “So does that mean I get the blueberry cake recipe?” It was the wrong thing to say, but I got over it, and resolved to wait for another slice next summer.
Keep in mind, though, that for me, not having a recipe doesn’t necessarily mean not being able to duplicate something, at least roughly. Technically, I could reinvent the blueberry cake. It’s not a temptation I deal with on a regular basis, because, quite frankly, the idea of the family recipe has all but faded in my generation, and of those that are left, few are really secret.
But last weekend, we went hiking. The trail we took up to Skyline Lake wasn’t so much dotted with huckleberries; it plowed a path through a virtual huckleberry forest. We slept on huckleberries. (Here’s Frank’s slideshow, by the way; you can see how the leaves on the blackberry bushes are turning different shades of orange.) On the way down we picked them, watching the shiny, dark fruits roll over each other like ball bearings as we tipped them into the big zip-top bag I’d brought just in case. We showed each other our huckleberry hands and giggled.
In the mountains, I’d wanted to make muffins, with buttermilk and lemon zest. But by the time the huckleberries were clean and dry, huddling together in a paper towel-lined bowl in my refrigerator, I’d realized I could sin without sinning. My goal shifted: I’d make huckleberry cake.
And so I started. To assuage the guilt that began building the moment I set the butter and cream cheese out to soften, I strayed from the parts I knew to be true: I mixed by machine instead of by hand, added not so much sugar, and used huckleberries instead of blueberries (and many more of them).
When the cake came out of the oven, hot and puffed and only barely browned at the edges, the way Mom Trafton’s always is, I almost called her to tell her what I’d done. Instead, I decided to skip the frosting. I put the cream cheese back in the refrigerator and ferried cake to my neighbors and to my fellow pickers, an unnoticed atonement and silent celebration for doing something I know I shouldn’t have done.
If the Traftons ask, fresh, wild Maine blueberries (especially the ones Emily picks each year) are not an acceptable substitute for huckleberries. And this would be terrible with a soft, spreadable cream cheese frosting.
Huckleberry Cake (PDF)
Recipe 268 of 365
Based on my imagined recipe for the infamous Trafton Family Blueberry Cake (although truth be told, it may belong to Mom Trafton’s family, so it might carry her maiden name), this isn’t one of those fussy, ethereally light cakes, meant to be dressed up and presented with pomp and circumstance. It’s homey and hearty, and takes about fifteen minutes to whip together. Serve it hot, just out of the pan, with vanilla ice cream or soft cream cheese frosting.
TIME: 15 minutes active time
MAKES: 8 servings
Butter and flour, for the pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup milk
2 cups huckleberries
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour an 8” square cake pan, and set aside.
Whisk the flour, salt, and baking powder together in a mixing bowl. Transfer a heaping tablespoon of the dry mixture to a small bowl, and set the small bowl aside – you’ll use this for the huckleberries.
In the work bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed until light, about three minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla, and mix to blend. Scrape the sides of the bowl down with a plastic spatula to incorporate the butter, and blend again on medium speed for 1 minute. Add half of the dry ingredients, then the milk, then the remaining half of the dry ingredients, mixing on low speed between each addition until just blended. Stir the huckleberries into the reserved flour mixture (coating them with flour prevents them from sinking in the batter and streaking it blue), then add them to the cake batter and mix in by hand. (The batter will be quite thick.)
Dump the batter into the prepared pan, and smooth into an even layer (don’t forget the corners!) with a flat spatula. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the center of the cake springs back when touched. (The cake will not brown much.) Let cool for 10 minutes, then serve straight from the pan, warm, with vanilla ice cream.
Filed under Cakes, commentary, dessert, fruit, recipe