By Robin Mather,
Special to Tribune Newspapers
May 8, 2013
When you're 8, you know, spring isn't yet a perennial miracle. It's a fresh miracle, one that marvelously seems to happen spontaneously every year. You haven't yet learned to count on it.
The thatch of violets that grew along the shady west side of the post office in my hometown was a spontaneous miracle too. We lived next door to the post office when I was growing up, and I remembered that they'd grown there the year before. But even in early May, there wasn't much sign of them. Had the long winter — interminable to an 8-year-old — killed them? Maybe the violets had been a one-time thing, a singular miracle.
I had a plan for those violets this year, however. I wanted to pick a big bouquet of them to give to my mother for Mother's Day. I wanted to pick as many as I could hold in one grubby fist, with the heart-shaped leaves ranged 'round the outside of the bouquet to frame it neatly. I had nothing else, really, to give my mother for Mother's Day.
Already, violets were my favorite flower. I loved the delicate purple flowers, adored their scent. They even tasted good — lightly sweet from their nectar, a tiny nibble of Michigan's ephemeral spring.
I checked the spot anxiously almost daily, the secret task of a worried little girl. I flew home from George Long Elementary School school each day as fast as my chubby legs could carry me, and swung around the back of the post office so I could sidle alongside the violet swale as I made my way to my father's print shop in the old railroad depot.
Most days I could wheedle a bit of change from him to get an ice cream at the drugstore across the street, and sometimes he would walk over with me to have a cup of coffee while I indulged.
On the Friday before Mother's Day, the violets had sprung forth — almost, it seemed, overnight. A few flowers had unfurled their blooms. Maybe, I thought. Maybe they'll be ready by Sunday morning.
And so they were. I ran over to check while I was still in my pajamas, and huzzah! The long strip that had been green was now a sea of purple. Oh, how wondrously scented the cool air was, there in that shady, moist spot. I picked and picked and still their number seemed not to diminish.
At last I had the bouquet I had imagined. Pajama knees muddied and damp, I sped back to the house, finding my mother at the dining room table with a cup of coffee. "Happy Mother's Day!" I cried, and she, to her credit, made a fuss over my messy bouquet. For she knew something that I, at 8, did not: plucked violets last less than 24 hours. Their beauty and wondrously delicate fragrance fade fast.
Still, she placed the bouquet in a Mason jar of cool water, then buried her nose in the flowers to inhale the violets' tender gift.
"Look at you," she said, eyeing my muddy knees. "You'll need a bath before we go to Gram Mather's today. And I have to finish the orange cake. If you're quick, you can help me."
The cake was a miracle in its own right. As I often did, I had perched on the tall kitchen stool to watch as she made it. Mom wasn't a frequent baker, so seeing her make a cake from scratch was its own delight.
She had done something odd, the night before, when she pulled the cake from the oven. Instead of sliding two cake pans onto a rack — now that I had seen lots of times — she had turned the tall cake pan upside-down on the counter, where it stood on little feet.
"It needs to hang overnight," she had said as we set about cleaning up the kitchen.
Freshly bathed, I found my mother in the kitchen spreading marmalade over the towering cake's top. She coaxed a few glistening bits into sliding down the sides. Next, she spooned confectioners' sugar into a sieve and sifted great billows of it over the top.
"Needs something," she muttered "Ah!"
To my amazement, she retrieved the fistful of violets from the table and plunked it into the cake's center hole.
"What do you think?" She fiddled with the leaves, setting them just so.
"It's beautiful!" Eight-year-olds lack adjectives.
It was a singular miracle. A fleeting miracle, to be sure — the cake was destined to be wholly devoured within the hour — but a miracle nonetheless.
These days, so many years later, many things seem like miracles to me. And like the cake, they seem fleeting.
But the triumph of that cake — this cake — is that it can be re-created at will.
And if you haven't a grubby-fisted 8-year-old to fetch you in a fistful of violets, have no worries. The cake is a pretty thing regardless.
Fresh orange sponge cake
Prep: 45 minutes
Bake: 40 minutes
Note: Slightly adapted from "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book," by Marion Cunningham. You definitely want to measure the egg whites and yolks; eight of my young hens' eggs gave me only 3/4 cup of whites. All ingredients at room temperature, please.
2 to 3 large (softball-size) oranges
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 ¾ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup egg whites (about 8)
1/3 cup egg yolks (about 6)
1 1/2 cups bitter orange marmalade
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier, Cointreau or other orange-flavored liqueur
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grate the rind of the oranges — just the colored part — to get 2 tablespoons zest. Set aside. while you Juice the oranges, measuring out 1/3 cup. Set the juice aside.
2. Combine 1/4 cup sugar with 1 tablespoon zest; rub together with your fingers until thoroughly combined.
3. Combine the flour and salt in a bowl; sift them together twice. Set aside. Put the egg whites into a large mixing bowl; beat until foamy. Gradually add 1/2 cup sugar; beat until the whites are stiff but moist, and stand in peaks that droop slightly when the beater is lifted.
4. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks until thickened slightly; slowly add the remaining 1/2 cup sugar and the sugar-zest combo. Beat until thick and lemon-colored. Add orange juice and remaining zest; blend well.
5. Sift the flour over the yolk mixture; stir gently until smooth, with no drifts of flour visible. Gently stir one quarter of the beaten whites into the batter. Pour the remaining whites on top; gently fold them into the yolk mixture, cutting down in the center with the spatula, taking it to the bottom and up the side of the bowl, then turning the bowl a bit and repeating until smooth and blended. Spread batter evenly in an ungreased 10-inch tube pan. Bake until a straw inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, 40 minutes.
6. Remove the cake from the oven; invert cake. If the pan has little feet, invert onto those. If not, invert over a wine bottle or similar bottle with a thin neck. Let cool completely before removing from the pan. Warm the marmalade slightly; stir in the liqueur. Pour over the top of the cake. Sift the confectioners' sugar lavishly over the top.
Per serving: 321 calories, 3 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 92 mg cholesterol, 71 g carbohydrates, 6 g protein, 162 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Robin Mather is a senior associate editor at Mother Earth News and the author of "The Feast Nearby."
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