Thursday, June 21, 2012

A is for Anise

I’ve always loved anise flavor, in any guise. Many of my early taste memories revolve around anise. As a little kid back when it was fun to be a little kid, I had plenty of freedom to explore my world by myself.  Remember those days when you had free reign of the block until you heard your mother yell up and down the street that dinner was ready?

Fennel by visualdensity on Flickr

All that running through the neighborhood tired me out. My favorite way to catch my breath was to flatten a hiding place in the tall grasses and wild fennel that seemed to forest Berkeley’s empty lots. I’d snap off a stalk of wild fennel and lie hidden in the grass. The fennel plants, with their lacy green foliage and bright yellow flowers, drooped over me. I stared at the sky, crunching the stalk between my teeth, releasing the peppery sweet cleansing flavor.

Not everyone liked anise. I could usually find someone more than happy to trade his black Chuckles square for my green one. That green square, incidentally, was lime. I always wondered—it just tasted like bad green flavor to me.

At the movies, while other kids cemented their teeth together over Milk Duds, Jujubes, or Sugar Babies, I tended to buy a box of Good & Plenty. Not because I didn’t like those other candies—I liked them fine (and my friends knew I’d take any black jujubes off their hands). It’s just that the pink and white Good & Plenty were fun to eat. I’d nibble off the candy coating, and then have a nice piece of licorice to suck on.

cake in pan

I quickly learned that if I bought licorice instead of chocolate I wouldn't have to share as much of my candy. ‘Aha’ moments are supposed to be life-changing moments when you gain sudden clarity and insight. I suppose the realization that liking licorice afforded me more candy at the theater was my first ‘aha’ moment.

rhubarb upside down 4

Maybe the moment when I first saw the recipe for Rhubarb Anise Upside Down Cake on Epicurious (it was originally in the April 1999 issue of Gourmet—which I still miss, but that’s another story) was another ‘aha’ moment.

The cake was fun to make. Aren’t all upside-down cakes fun? First you get to melt brown sugar and butter (one of my main childhood hobbies—why did I ever give that up?). Then you get to arrange the fruit in a pleasing pattern.

Rhubarb upside down 2

And it was fun to turn out of the pan. Not a single square of rhubarb stuck to the pan.  After the cake was out, I took a spoon and carefully scraped out all the rhubarb flavored buttery brown sugar. And ate it over the sink.

The cake was delicious. I’m sorry there aren’t any pictures of a slice of the cake, but it disappeared pretty fast. It’s a moist cake, made with buttermilk (always a promising sign!), flavored with a teaspoon of anise seeds, pounded in a mortar and pestle.

I’ll make it again soon. Since rhubarb is just about finished, I think I’ll use up some of the frozen plums I squirreled away last summer. To make space for the bushels of blackberries I‘m planning on picking this summer.

Monday, June 4, 2012


“I’ve been in a bit of a slump,” I said this morning to Franny. By that I meant mainly with this blog. I have been writing other things (at this point for myself), reading, and starting my garden. But this blog has been sadly ignored.

Two things happened when I said that. Franny ran upstairs, and I remembered a picture I’d taken when I visited my parents last spring.

A couple of seconds later Franny came running down. “Do you have three minutes, Mom?”  And she sat down next to me with Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!. “I read this yesterday when I was babysitting. When you said ‘slump’ I thought of it right away.”

places you will go

I’m not sure how pleased I should be that a book Franny read to a three-year-old struck her as possibly useful to me. But I knew better than to argue. As usual, she was right.

By halfway through the book I was hooked. Especially once we arrived in the Waiting Place. It sounded so familiar, full of people waiting for things to come and go, phones to ring, and the pot to boil.

My interest piqued, I listened a bit more carefully, waiting for some instructions. Surely on the next page Dr. Seuss would lead us away from the Waiting Place.
 Somehow really

This was not what I expected. Though perhaps I should worry that I was thinking Dr. Seuss had all the answers.

apple slum recipe cover resize

And that picture I’d taken? On that visit I’d looked through my mother’s old recipe file. And there, in the dessert section, I found this yellowing scrap, with my name written across the front (I remember feeling quite proud of that cursive capital ‘G’ and ‘S’).

apple slum recipe 2

Opening it I found my first recipe. I had given it three names. The first was simply (and so descriptively) ‘Stuff’.  Then I tried ‘Apple Mush’, but decided that wasn’t texturally pleasing.

Actually, I’d wanted to call it ‘Apple Slump’, but thought that sounded a bit depressing. Apparently I didn’t yet realize that ‘Apple Slum’ wasn’t exactly tempting either.

In my defense, I was barely 7 years old. I’m a little shocked by the paltry amount of sugar I added, though maybe I was balancing it with the sugar in the cookies. So clever. I think I get extra points for proofreading, having caught and crossed out the ‘h’ in sugar. I knew enough to add 4 butter (4 cubes? 4 Tablespoons?).  Dessert should have butter. I think the recipe was my answer to the banana pudding on the Nilla Wafer box.

The last thing I remember about that recipe is how proud I felt when I wrote it, and presented it to Mom. Like a real cook.

And most importantly, I remember how seriously she took me and my recipe. We even made it together. I think the cookies got crushed, and perhaps the eggs omitted. In my memory, it really wasn’t that bad.

Maybe slumps don't have to be bad.

Here’s the recipe, as I wrote it:

Stuff    Apple Mush     Slum   Apple Slum

Mixer Bowl.

1. Crack 2 eggs
2. 2 teaspoons of shuger
3. Stir 10 cookies in
4. 4 Butter
5. Appelsuac
6. 1 Tablespoon of cinnamon


With its creative spellings and vague directions, if you squint you could almost think it was an early American recipe. Almost.
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