I always have to read a little before I go to bed. I get all ready - brush my teeth, wash my face, put on my cashmere bed socks (the best birthday present a girlfriend ever gave me) - and then I get in bed, adjust my pillow, fluff the blanket and open a book. If I don't read before turning off the lights, I'm guaranteed to toss and turn for a long while before falling asleep, if I'm able to do that at all.
For the past few nights, I've been re-reading Farmer Boy. I can't tell you how many times I've read it, but we can all be sure it's a fairly high number. The Little House series was my reason for living when I was a child (until Narnia came long and then Anne of Green Gables and Diana Wynne Jones and, oh, let's stop this right now, otherwise we'll be here all day) and when I was at my friend Joan's last year, gripped with writer's block and worry, she pulled Farmer Boy off her shelf and handed it over to me. "Remember this?"
The pleasure I get from going back into Almanzo's world is hard to put into words. Every other sentence plunges me back in time to when I was first reading about how the Wilder men cut and stored ice, packed in straw, until summertime, how Almanzo and his siblings made candy while their parents were out of town, using up all the good sugar their mother warned them not to finish, how Almanzo longed to be given the responsibilities of caring for the family's horses while his father continued to command him to stay away. And, of course, how little, 9-year old Almanzo put away in one regular weeknight dinner what most of us could barely manage on a holiday like Thanksgiving.
None of us (well, as far as I can imagine) are doing anywhere near the amount of physical labor that he was at nine years old. But still. Here's what Almanzo ate on one winter's evening:
1. Sweet, mellow baked beans
2. Mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy
4. Velvety bread spread with sleek butter
5. A tall heap of pale mashed turnips
6. A hill of stewed yellow pumpkin
7. Plum preserves, strawberry jam and grape jelly
8. Spiced watermelon pickles
9. A large piece of pumpkin pie
And then (oh, you didn't think he was done, did you?), the family retired to the fireplace and Almanzo ate popcorn and apples and drank apple cider, and he took such pleasure in this and his family and his life that when I read that bit I always fairly burst with the longing to reach out through time and space and dimension to touch his sweet little self or give him a hug. And also eat a handful of popcorn with a glass of cider in the other hand.
Books, man. They kill me.
We think Thanksgiving is such a busy time and we overwhelm ourselves with grocery lists and cooking strategies and forums on whether to brine or not to brine (actually, this lady doesn't), so reading about how the women in Almanzo's family did that kind of work every day, in addition to churning the butter and curing the ham and dying their own wool and cloth so they could sew their clothes and their own rag carpets, among a hundred other daily chores and duties, well, it's humbling.
The resourcefulness and thrift and sheer doggedness is particularly inspiring, as well as mortifying, of course, because I think nothing of throwing out a stale heel of bread or letting those two stray carrots in the fridge whither into sponginess. While I'm far away from ever wanting to move to a house in upstate New York and become a self-subsistent farmer, what I'm trying to say, I guess, is that Farmer Boy is as enchanting to the adult me now as it was to the little me then.
I made pumpkin pie for our Thanksgiving feast (we celebrated on Saturday instead of Thursday), but due to a little, er, mathematical error, I roasted about six times too much squash in preparation for the pie (this one, in case you're wondering, which was once again demolished in one fell swoop, but with this crust recipe, the second half of which I used for this tart, which was eaten even faster than the pumpkin pie).
I froze some of the squash, but with all the Advent tea times ahead of us in the next month (the Germans are big on Advent Sunday tea time), I decided to get resourceful and bake something to have on hand during the next few weekends. Pumpkin bread from a monastery in Los Angeles that sells loaves for $9 a pop seemed like a good place to start.
The recipe hasn't changed since the early 1970's, which is a pretty good pedigree, if you ask me. It's a basic sweet bread or tea cake or whatever you'd like to call it, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg (I also added some cloves) and is quiveringly tender and moist. If you, like me, use Hokkaido (or red kuri) squash, your batter will seem practically fluorescent.
I promise, though, that it will mellow in the oven, turning an agreeable, gingerbread-y brown. The crumb is velvety-soft and fragrant with sweet squash and the spices, while the crust gets all caramelized and toothsome. Some bits of it even crunch. It's a lovely thing to eat. I wanted to add walnuts to the batter, but mine were all rancid, so I threw in chopped pecans, the last of a precious stash from the States, instead. Their earthy crunch is a nice thing to happen upon as you work your way through each soft slice of bread.
My only advice would be to try and make as many loaves out of this one batch of batter as you can. I crammed all of the batter into one 13-inch long loaf pan and ended up having to bake the loaf for an hour and a half, nearly burning the edges. If you bake it in smaller loaf pans, the baking time reduces to one hour.
I let it cool completely, then I wrapped it carefully in plastic wrap and foil and put in the freezer where it'll rest until this Sunday when we have friends over for tea in the candlelight.
But next Sunday, I've already decided, there will be popcorn and apples and cider. And in addition to being grateful for my family's good health and my good fortune in life, I'll be saying a little gratitude prayer for books, my constant companions in this life.
Tell me, readers, what were the childhood books that you loved the most?
Monastery of Angels' Pumpkin Bread
Makes 1 13-inch long loaf or 2 smaller loaves
Original recipe here
3.5 cups of all-purpose flour
3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1.5 teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup water
2 cups puréed pumpkin or squash
1/2 cup chopped pecans tossed with a spoonful or two of flour
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour loaf pan(s). Sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a large bowl.
2. In a separate bowl, combine eggs, oil, water and pumpkin and mix well. Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until the batter is smooth and there are no streaks of flour left. Fold in the pecans.
3. Scrape the batter into the buttered and floured loaf pan(s). Bake for 1.5 hours or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean. Cool the pan(s) on a rack for half an hour before turning the loaves out to cool completely. Wrapped tightly, the bread keeps for at least three days.