A Secret Garden

My deck is a small square space in the back of the second floor of our home. The entrance is through the living room into the playroom. Suddenly the door opens into an open patio, sky and sun above it, with a view into all the small quiet backyards on this block. You could almost miss it.

For a half of the year, the patio lies unused. It’s too cold and stark. But come spring, the air turns softer, and suddenly the patio turns inviting. It’s cool and shady in the morning. Full, bright sun in the afternoon. Even more alluring in the late afternoon. The patio faces the setting sun which is hidden behind cliffs and buildings, but at twilight the sky lights up in a golden, bewitching, almost magical, way. The air stands suspended, as though something was about to unfold.

Each spring I think – I won’t spend as much time and money on plants for the deck as I did last year. There will be cold spells, vacations with no water for the thirsty plants, violent thunderstorms, big winds that uproot…. but this year, as I do each year, I feel I’ve figured out the right plants for our deck and me – I am sure they will survive my erratic watering habits, my peripatetic behavior, my love of travel.

I make multiple trips to the gardening store and fill the small space with colorful glazed and unglazed clay pots and all the plants I’ve grown to love over the years – petunias, geraniums, marigolds, hibiscus, rose, dahlia, ranunculus, trailing vinca vines, a one pot herb garden. I love mixing and matching into container pots. There is always an explosion of soil and dirt. Both children and now the dog, eager helpers in procurement and planting.

The patio starts looking cosier. I linger with my morning cup, my one-skillet lunch bowl, my afternoon tea. When friends are here, a whole tray with sweet and savory goods and an oversized pot of tea. Often an entire Saturday lunch brought outside and eaten under the red umbrella with the boys.

Bruno and a cookie recipe

A few months ago, Vijnan showed me a picture of a brown haired puppy, a tiny mite pictured on the deck in a basket, that had shown up somewhat unexpectedly in our search for a dog. We were longing for one, both of us secretly hoping for a dachshund, similar to the dogs we grew up with – Tasha, Digby and Tootsie. We were soon driving home with an 8-week old puppy, who was surprisingly calm. He promptly fell asleep, nose deep into Vijnan’s arm, unlike our active human babies as I remembered them.

Bruno the brave, Bruno the strong and Bruno the silly, as I love to call him, is now all of ten months. He follows me around the house, sleeps curled up next to me or between my feet as I stand in the kitchen, snuggles up close for body warmth, greets me every hour with ferocious licks and furiously wagging tail. He has soft velvety red-brown fur, the nicest doggy smell and probably the sweetest disposition of any dog that I have ever met. Of course, I am not biased.

Yesterday, Bruno and I settled down on the deck. It was a perfect spring day – flowers everywhere, sunshine filtering through young green leaves. There was the occasional bird and inquisitive squirrel that popped in for a visit. As tea time drew closer, thoughts of warm home made cookies, melting with chocolate, appeared from nowhere. The boys would soon be home, I was pleasurably surfing the new NYTimes Cooking app and on there showed up a chocolate chip cookie from Amanda Hesser. I scanned the ingredients – could it be that I had everything in my pantry. It was a simple list – all purpose flour (no need for bread or cake flour), unsalted butter (always in my fridge), brown sugar (staple for daily tea), eggs (always in stock), vanilla extract, walnuts, bittersweet chocolate chips (Ghirardelli, good enough)….I was ready to go.

For room temperature butter and eggs, I sat hen-like with a stick of butter and an egg for several minutes under the hot afternoon sun. Next, a few minutes to whip the softened butter and sugar with an electric beater, add the egg and vanilla…then all the dry ingredients whisked separately together – flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda. Last, chocolate chips and walnuts folded in gently. Important step and one that asks for extra patience – cover and refrigerate the dough for 1-2 hours before baking small balls of dough at 350F for fifteen minutes on a sheet tray lined with baking parchment. This was a pro-tip from my pastry chef sister.

Made 16-20 delicious and surprisingly excellent chocolate walnut cookies that held their chubby cookie shape.

Loosely adapted from Amanda Hesser

Makes 16-20 small cookies

4oz butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1/2 tbsp vanilla essence

1 1/4 cup flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp fine sea salt

1 cup walnuts, chopped

1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

  1. Using an electric beater on the lowest setting, beat the butter and and sugar in a large bowl for a few minutes. Add the egg, then vanilla and continue to beat until well incorporated. In another bowl mix together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture – fold in gently. Stir in walnuts and chocolate chips. Cover bowl and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.
  2. When ready to bake, turn oven to 350F. Prepare baking sheet with parchment paper. Using a small ice cream scoop, create small balls of dough and place them 2 inches apart.
  3. Bake for 15 minutes or so, until cookies look golden.

Cake everyday

I’ve become obsessed with cake and especially with tea cakes. Not once in a while. Not weekly. Every Day.

Last week I started with the orange-lemon-almond-olive oil cake from Orangette to bring to a friend’s home for dinner. Alongside, I made the same cake with lemons only, for our home and as an “experiment.” Lemon cake was very lemony, but we ate it in gobs any way, and it was actually really good by day 3, by which time all bitter lemon flavor from too many lemons in the cake had softened into the almonds and olive oil.

Next, a hazelnut brown butter cake vanilla bean cake for a friend that was less successful from Smitten Kitchen – really delicious nutty flavors but the cake called for too little flour which resulted in an overly moist crumb.  I planned to make it again, this time with a real whole vanilla bean and more flour.

Then, a bake sale at school – for which two large cakes were baked. Banana chocolate chip and orange olive oil, this time all flour no almond and equally good. The banana cake made Vasisht long for one of his own and his writing project in school called for one. So, in the interests of research, we made it again – this time I remembered to use parchment paper at the bottom and bake the cake for longer at a slightly lower temperature, which yielded a moist, very banana and chocolate evenly browned cake. Best eaten warm and straight out of the oven.

In the middle of all this, a recipe for pistachio cake secretly made its way in. I couldn’t help myself – I had read the recipe on Orangette, and could not stop thinking about it. Like the author, I seemed to be not rational when contemplating pistachio cake, who had found this pistachio pound cake recipe in Bon Appetit magazine. And a pistachio cake with three types of citrus, including limes, lemons and pixie tangerines that I had sitting on my counter, and softened butter with lots of eggs – it was only a matter of — hours — before I succumbed.  It was a successful tea cake – and for better or worse that seemed to be my only criterion – how does this cake taste with chai?

Answer: excellent