The view from my writing window is gray this morning. Even what little snow is left outside looks greasy and gray these days: the sad remains of snow flurries that were cause for celebration a couple weeks ago.
I don’t hate the view. Or at least, up until today I haven’t, and I think perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I used to dream about snowy winter weather during the temperate, lavish green ones I took for granted back home in California. The hills are emerald green by now, I imagine, and beanies are more of a fashionable reminder of wintertime, rather than a necessary defense against bitter winds. Bags brimming with oranges and lemons and grapefruits used to show up on our doorstep back home, all gleaned from my Grandparents’ stalwart old trees. Can you imagine the miracle of finding a bag of citrus on our doorstep today? I clearly see Grandma taking a break from all the fruit picking and cradling an afternoon cup of tea in her hands. Its steam swirls in the cool of a January afternoon, and she laughs as we share a short visit. I want to be there with her right now: capturing her laugh in a locket and catching the sweet smell of the backyard blossoms in a bottle, and I want to tuck them into my chest so I can always remember her that way. And I really want that bag of oranges she inevitably sent home with me.
Even so, the mild winters of my youth pale in comparison to the beauty of a quiet winter snow. Flakes bigger than a postage stamp (and sometimes as big as my fist) quietly floated down from a white sky, as if all our Midwestern great grandmothers huddled together over our house and scattered fistfuls of doilies over us as a sort of blessing, welcoming us to the landscape upon which they lived their lives. The flakes accumulated for hours, and when they finally finished, the world outside glistened, just like all those Christmas carols say they do. The trees out front looked like scraggly fingers slipped beneath pure white gloves embroidered with pearls and diamonds, hands held out low as if ready to receive a kiss. The landscape was the purest white; the clouds seemed to wrap us in a hug, and the fire blazed in the hearth every night. It wasn’t Christmas, but it sure was cozy.
That snow eventually melted though, and as it did so I found myself surrounded by a landscape painted in an array of neutrals that I love–gray skies that reminded me of a well-loved sweater; white snow as feather light as freshly whipped butter; grass turned taupe like toasted oatmeal–warm and welcoming; and gray-black tree branches the very same color as faded ink that fill the pages of the oldest books I own–and they tricked me into thinking winter was an old friend. Today, those same colors that seemed comforting and familiar at first are now so faded they don’t seem like colors at all any more. Cadaverous trees reach out of the pallid landscape, like a corpse stretching its bony gray fingers up out of the grave. Beyond them, the ashen horizon fades into a tired blue sky that reminds me faded blue jeans, rumpled and cast away. Even cheerless colors die a slow death in winter here.
To compensate, my imagination is conjuring up all sorts of colorful glory that keeps me company in these dark days. I catch myself daydreaming about the brightest colors I can imagine, colors like marigold and daffodil, pineapple and emerald; sea foam and cerulean. I want fill the shelves above the hearth with pots of sunflowers and chrysanthemums and daffodils, and I want a happy vase of pink gerbera daisies to smile at me from the kitchen table again. I want to make lemon herb chicken and grilled vegetables; steak kebabs and garden salads and strawberry shortcake. I want bring sunshine into a spaces that haven’t seen it in weeks.
The bright spot of January? Your birthday. Did you notice I didn’t bother asking what kind of birthday cake you wanted this year? I knew what your answer would be (“White cake with white frosting, please!”), but I just couldn’t bear to celebrate with something so devoid of color. Instead, I made a tender yellow sponge cake with luscious custard filling and topped it all with the most resplendent fruits I could find. True: it was inspired by that fruit torte we nearly forgot to serve ten years ago on your birthday (after the shock of having you propose to me in the middle of your birthday party, can you blame me for forgetting to serve cake?), but admittedly I just couldn’t pass up my chance to bring a little color into the house. It was a lovely, delicious break from the hum-drum colors of winter (even though I pictured the truck that carried the fruit coughing gray exhaust as it made its way across the winter wasteland. Sigh. The gray is everywhere.)
I know it won’t last; as these bitter days stretch on in what feels like an eternal curse of cold, I am learning to hope again, to anticipate watching the miracle of life after death unfold before my eyes in a much more obvious way. The impossible truth that life will come again is astounding to my heart, because everything appears too far gone to ever return. I know this isn’t true. I know generation upon generation before me has watched this miracle unfold, but it feels like I am living what I had only learned before. I watch for signs of life every day, learning again what expectant hope feels like. We saw a rabbit skittering through the fence a few days ago. Yesterday I saw a small bird flitting through the trees. The sun pokes holes in the clouds every so often, and it feels glorious and warm as it filters through the living room windows late in the afternoon, and if we’re lucky, we see rainbows dance against the wall, celebrating. When the clouds part, and the blue sky seems dull at the horizon, but when I lift my eyes above the desolate land and focus my eyes toward the heavens, the sky screams blue like a dazzling aquamarine. And I dreamed about the most beautiful garden last night, lush and green as velvet with a sea of cheerful yellow chrysanthemums dotted with deep blue ones, and it felt like a promise of so much more to come.
Ten years ago Joey planned the ultimate surprise proposal when he popped the question on his own birthday. We were so swept up in the romance of it all that we almost forgot to sing happy birthday or serve cake. Marking the anniversary of our engagement with a version our whole family could enjoy felt right, especially since it brought so much color into the middle of a frigid, lackluster landscape. Clearly, this dessert would be amazing served in summertime, when the strawberries are sweeter than candy. But in the dead of winter, the honey glaze helps sweeten them up. I used Nicole from Gluten Free on a Shoestring’s delicious recipe for spongecake as a base (and didn’t alter it, because why fuss when something is so perfect?), so follow the link below to find her recipe. This torte is gluten free, dairy free, and nut free–and delicious enough for my seven year old niece to ask for two slices.
For the Sponge Cake:
Get Nicole’s recipe here.
For the Custard Cream:
- 1/4 cup + 2 Tablespoons sugar
- 3 Tablespoons cornstarch
- 3 egg yolks
- 1-15 oz can full fat coconut milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup So Delicious Coco Whip
For the Fresh Fruit Topping
- 2 kiwis, peeled & sliced
- 1 pint strawberries (or more, if you prefer), washed and sliced to about 1/4″ thick
- canned mandarin oranges (6-8 segments or so)
- 3 Tablespoons honey
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Next, start by preparing the sponge cake. Follow Nicole’s recipe (which you can find here), but bake the batter in a 10″ greased spring form pan for about 20 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan and is golden on top.
Next, make the custard cream. Start by mixing the sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Next, whisk the egg yolks into the sugar/starch mixture until it loosens up and turns a beautiful buttery yellow.
Then, heat the coconut milk in a small saucepan over high heat, until it bubbles around the rim. Remove the pan from the heat and temper the egg mixture: scoop about a 1/4 cup of the hot milk into the egg mixture and whisk; scoop another 1/4 cup of hot milk into the mixture and whisk again; scoop one more 1/4 cup of hot milk into the egg mixture and whisk again. Then, pour the tempered egg mixture into the pan with the hot coconut milk and whisk to combine. Set the pan over medium heat and cook, whisking as you go. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for one minute, then remove from the heat again. Add the vanilla, whisk well, and pour the custard into a glass bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap (carefully place it directly onto the custard so a film does not form) and refrigerate until cool (this takes a few hours).
When the custard has cooled, fold 1 cup So Delicious Coco Whip (which is basically a vegan version of Cool Whip).
Once the cake has cooled and the custard cream is ready, spread the custard cream on top of the sponge cake (you can choose whether to remove the sides of the spring form pan yet or not). Top with sliced fruit, then brush a little honey on top to make the cake thing shine.