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French Madeleines

By Mary

As everyone in America is well aware, we’ve been experiencing some extreme, record breaking cold weather in Wisconsin. It’s difficult, it’s gloomy, and yes it has been very cold. For the last week, we’ve been perpetually hunkered down and focused on staying warm, keeping the wood fire going, keeping the baby happy, and the animals well fed, warm, and safe in the barn as we head into lambing season.

What a surprise it was to me on Monday morning when I heard a loud pounding on my door. Now, I’m the last home on a dead end road, so unannounced visitors are few. I opened the door to find a poor postal service employee with a package in his hand. He asked me how I was. I replied “Much better than you!” He agreed, as he informed me he’d already been stuck in the ditch once that morning. I signed for the package as hurriedly as I could so he could scurry back to his warm vehicle. Coming back into the house, I wondered who could possibly be sending me a box.

The box was from my dear friend Havilah who grew up homeschooling with me here in Wisconsin and is now the co-owner of the wildly successful Blue Fox tour company in Paris, France. This box made my day, or quite truthfully, my week. In the depths of this 20 below cold snap, I was given warmth and cheer. If any of you recall the famous Christmas barrel (and turkey!) that came in May to the Wilder family during The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you can imagine how I felt. This package was just as delightful to receive.

Upon opening the box I discovered it was full of French chocolates and a recipe to make madeleines, as well as a madeleine baking tray. This week there has been so much chocolate consumption in my home, and I’ve been churning out madeleines for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

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Many thanks to Havilah for her delightful and timely gift. As this season of cold continues, I encourage all of you to lighten your spirits. May we all find joy in the simplicity of friendship and food.

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French Madeleines

You will need:

1 stick (4 oz) unsalted butter

2 tsp vanilla extract

1 ½ tsp lemon zest, finely grated

1 cup all purpose flour

1 ½ tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

3 large eggs, at room temperature

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup confectioners sugar, sifted

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To begin:

  1. Cut the butter into tablespoons and place in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, reduce heat to low and continue cooking, until the solids sink to the bottom of the pan and turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and pour the browned butter into a small cup.
  2. Stir the vanilla and lemon zest into the butter, then set aside to cool
  3. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside till needed.
  4. In a different bowl, beat the eggs at medium speed while gradually adding the sugar. Once all of the sugar has been added, increase the speed to medium high and continue whipping the mixture until it’s very thick and pale in color, about 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the mixture off and, using a spatula, fold in the flour mixture in 3 additions, stirring just until combined. Fold in the butter mixture.
  5. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, up to 2 days.
  6. 30 minutes before you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Generously brush the molds of your madeleine pan with butter, then lightly dust with flour.
  7. Spoon level scoops of the batter into the center of each mold. You don’t need to spread the batter.
  8. Bake for 12 minutes, or until their little “bellies” have risen and they’re golden brown.
  9. Cool madeleines in the pan placed on the cooling rack for a minute or two, then gently remove them from molds.
  10. Dust with confectioners sugar and serve with coffee or tea.

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Music in Ordinary Time

By Kate

We are headed into the depths of winter. I will not say the heart, because the glowing heart of winter, the warmth and the beauty and the wonder of it, all are wrapped up in the Christmas season which has recently come to an end, stranding us in Ordinary Time.

This past week has brought us long soaking dreary rains topped with a dusting of slippery snow and a bone chilling arctic blast of cold. This season stretches on, veiled with the dust of dried road salt, a thin harsh grime that covers streets and cars with a corrosive film that eats away at metal and hope. There is ice upon mud. There is mud upon my kitchen floor.

This is the perfect time of year for a house concert.

A house concert brings beauty, conviviality, and magic back into the cold and lonesome stretch of late winter. Hosting a house concert is a fantastic reason to hang the Christmas lights back up, mop the floors clean, bring in some fresh flowers, and pull all the furniture against the walls to open up your home, eat good cheese and drink fine wine and listen to beautiful music in fancy clothing, OR in farm boots and a cut off t shirt if you’d like.

One of the best things about house concerts is that you can make your own rules. For example, babes in arms and/or lap dogs welcome.

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We hosted a house concert a week ago to celebrate a visit from my youngest sister, Clare and to work on the avant-garde Wild West material we will soon be recording and performing at several upcoming house concerts, on a tour to the Blue Ridge mountains.

With Clare’s help, we swept and scrubbed the house, pulled apart the couch, closed the pocket doors, and set up the living room for a house concert. We cut boughs of evergreen from the bushes in the garden and put them on the mantle and the kitchen windowsill. We pulled out the antique candlesticks and hung up twinkling Christmas lights.

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We invited over a dozen friends, asked them to bring a bottle of wine. I baked several loaves of crusty bread, set out cheese and olives and dip.

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In a fortuitous twist, Clare arrived bearing inherited treasures from a past and fantastically stylish generation- fringed sweaters and earrings which we decided were the perfect wardrobe for a house concert on a wintry night.

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A house concert in late winter is a wonderful experience. As a musician, host, and guest of many of these occasions, I can’t recommend them enough. Although the details may change (lemonade and cookies or a potluck instead of wine and cheese, afternoon or evening setting, formal or informal attire) the heart of the experience is a joyful celebration.

So much of life takes place in Ordinary Time. Why not make it more musical? A house concert is a wonderful way to create beauty, to cultivate wonder, to nourish the soul with art, and to gather together joyfully in the dreary depths of winter.

 

 

Why We are Homeschooling

I am gazing up at a falcon perched in the boughs of a maple tree as I write this, and light is pouring in. My daughter is playing our old upright piano. This sounds idyllic, and it is, especially to me, because in the past all of the writing I did at the computer took place in a dark corner of my home, where a blank brick wall loomed above my dusty desk piled high with discarded papers of dubious importance. We have been contemplating important things, lately, and moving things around to let the light in.

We began homeschooling this week. Our oldest child has been attending a local parish school for three and a half years now, and our second started kindergarten this year. This has worked for us in many ways, carving out space in the day where I could teach a few hours a week, rehearse and write and spend time with the littlest ones and hang laundry on the line and attempt to sort it once I took it down. To be honest, my favorite part of sending the kids to school was the mile long walk up a steep hill pulling a wagon, with a baby strapped to me, and back home through the vibrant streets of an Italian neighborhood. That is, my favorite part of school was engaging in the outside world of nature and society with my children, learning along the way.

My husband is a teacher. Educating children is a topic we’ve spent a great deal of time thinking and talking about. Over the years we have been drawn more and more to the idea of home schooling, but we planned to wait till the children were older, till the house was cleaner, till I was more organized and could actually be counted upon to sort the laundry gathered from the line. I couldn’t imagine creating a life orderly enough to educate my children. Granted, many of my conceptions of home schooling are drawn from my own life, when my mother (also a teacher) decided to begin homeschooling four school aged children simultaneously and somewhat abruptly, with a baby and a toddler running about beneath our pounding feet. I was 13, and spent that year secluded in the attic, above the chaos, nose buried in a book. I read most of Shakespeare but that was about as far as my formal education got that year, but I still can’t do long division.

In the past year, I slowly began to realize that home schooling has changed a great deal since I was a student. We have been travelling as musicians, and one of the greatest gifts of doing this has been spending time with other families who generously offer to host us in their home and often host house concerts as well. Every single one of these families has been a home schooling family. Every single one of these families have been an inspiration to me. At the last place we stayed, our host asked us “Why in the world DON’T you home school?”

The question stayed with me. I began to look around. There are amazing curriculum options, structures, and communities created to support parents as teachers. A new hybrid home school project began here in Pittsburgh this year, complete with a classical curriculum, simple uniforms, and two days a week in school with talented teachers and an incredibly spirited gym class. We visited, and my children fell in love with the place.

In the meantime, a kind and gracious friend of mine, a homeschooling mother who could give Marie Kondo a run for her money, offered to come by and help re-order my home. I gladly accepted. She arrived, and sweetly, softly suggested that we move the antique upright piano- which weighs 800 lbs.

It wasn’t easy, to say the least, but it was exciting. My sister was here, so we had two farm girls and one diminutive graceful woman with an unbelievable amount of vision and determination. At one point there was an brief and necessary prayer session. In the end the piano shifted, the bookshelves came together, and the light poured in.

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In the past few years we have been striving to live the life that we are called to live, in this present moment, to form the future. We are making music. We are striving for harmony. We are building a library from the discarded books of a school system and culture that is being dismantled. We cannot change the fate of the whole world though our daily life, but we can change the lives of our children, who will go out into that great world. We can let the light pour into our home and let it illuminate their lives, and that is why we are homeschooling.

 

 

The Golden Chain

I am holding a thin golden chain.

We are musicians but lately we have been working on creating jewelry inspired by the lines of the harp I play. Today, the project is a necklace. The chain I am holding is a delicate cable chain, gold filled. Heat and pressure fused a bond between the gold and the metal beneath.

We are using a golden ring to hang a harp of vintage brass from the 1930s, adorned with delicate vines. The ring is a jump ring and cannot be pried apart, or it will never be able to be put back together. Instead, it must be gently twisted, spiraling out and returning.

One year ago, one of my closest friends handed me a pair of earrings. Harps, pressed gold, paper thin, still shining. Many years ago, I left them behind in a blue cabin in North Carolina. I’d bought a set of harp earrings and a matching necklace when the daughter I placed for adoption was very small. I was spending a lot of time playing the harp to soothe my soul, and poring over a catalogue full of sheet music I found that set of necklace and earrings and ordered them. I sent a thin gold necklace and my love in the mail across the country to California and I kept the earrings so that we each had a part of the whole. I believe I thought that thin golden chain would hold us together somehow. I was wrong about that. It wasn’t the necklace, which she lost, or the earrings, which I accidentally abandoned when I left the blue cabin behind for the mountains, which bound us together.

What bound us together was love but what linked us together was the grace of the beautiful woman who is the mother of my daughter. Eighteen years ago on this day, I was holding within me an unborn child and the knowledge that another woman would become her mother. Eighteen years ago on this day I reached out with trembling fingers to pick up a phone and talk to that woman. Unbeknownst to me, it was her birthday.

I knew that the woman who would become the mother of my child was beautiful, blonde, talented, and intelligent. What I did not know then was her complete courage, her steadiness, her humor, her humility, and her holiness. I did not know how much she would teach me about how to become a woman, and a mother.

Adoption transforms us all. The bonds that connect us are complex. We are fused in pressure. We are bound by grace. I am holding a golden chain and upon it I will hang a harp and I am sending with my love to California, to the woman who is the mother of my child.

 

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My Mother’s Bread

By Kate

My mother taught me how to make bread.

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I don’t know how old I was when I began sifting flour and kneading dough, but I do know I was raised in a home where a battered metal bowl of bread dough was always rising near the wood stove, a kitchen where sifted flour motes hung in shafts of light. Coming off the school bus after the long ride from town, up Irish Hill and over the long ridges, looking out over the fields and fighting sleep I was secure in the knowledge that at the end of the journey I would race into the house and there would be bread fresh from the oven. We called them biscuits and we ate them with butter, with honey, with jam.  Over the years I’ve made this bread all over the country, often at Thanksgiving. In the South, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the cities of the East Coast, my friends and my in-laws have called them rolls. Regardless of what they are called, every single person who has tasted them has asked for the recipe. Today, I’m sharing the recipe with you.

You will need:

4 cups warm water

3 Tbsp (2 packets) active dry yeast

1/2 c sugar

1/2 cup oil (vegetable oil, olive oil, your choice)

1 Tablespoon salt

Flour, unbleached. A copious quantity.

To begin:

In a large bowl, pour in 4 cups of warm water. It should be very warm, but not hot. Test it on the back of your wrist. Make sure the bowl is in a warm, stable place. Measure in the yeast. 

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Next, sprinkle a little sugar on top of the yeast. I’ve never seen or heard this instruction from anyone but my mother, but it works like a charm. As she explained to me when I was a small child, clambering up on the counter while she worked, the sugar feeds the yeast. After you’ve sprinkled in the sugar, walk away- or stay right there, because it’s surprisingly interesting to watch. When I was little I loved to hang over the bowl and watch the yeast bloom and form colonies. If you have homeschooling children this is a fantastic time for a science experiment. After 10 or 15 minutes, the yeast should look like this:

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The yeast is ready. You can see it. You can smell it! Now, it’s time to add 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup oil, and 1 heaping tablespoon of salt.

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Now, it’s time to add flour. Alternate between adding flour and mixing with a large spoon, until the dough is just solid enough to pour out so you can begin kneading. It will look something like this:

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Pour out the dough onto a large, floured surface:

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It’s time to knead! What a wonderfully satisfying old word and concept kneading is. If you live in a large family, it’s likely that you’ll want to punch something at some point. Bread dough is a wonderful target. There is something very comforting about pushing into the dough with the bottom of your palm, hand over hand over hand, which is what you are doing here. You are also- and this is important- continuing to add flour as you knead. Sprinkle a little flour over the dough, knead, repeat. Keep sifting flour over the top of the bread as you go. You don’t want it to be sticky when you’re done, but you don’t want it to be tough either. Continue kneading slowly and surely for at least five minutes until the dough is uniform in texture and feels resilient to the touch:

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As you can see, the light is shifting. The morning has almost passed and the sun slants in and the shadows are deepening in my kitchen. Making bread demands time. You don’t have to pay attention to the bread all day, but you do have to begin early in the morning and give it ample time to rise and fall throughout the day. This is counter to our culture in so many ways and I would argue that a life that is lived in the rhythm of the rising and the baking of bread is a life of revolutionary freedom.

Dust your bread dough with flour and slide the dough back into the bowl.

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Cover with a clean bright cloth, and walk away. Let the dough rise, which will take a couple hours, depending on the season and the humidity and whether the oven is on and all sorts of other factors which you will discover which are particular to your own home and life. You want it to double in size, and when it does it will look like this:

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Again, pour the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and punch it down. You don’t have to knead it too thoroughly here, just punch out all of the air bubbles and give it a quick going over, continuing to dust very lightly with flour as you do so. Return the kneaded dough back to the bread bowl.

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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, because it’s time to make your rolls. This recipe will fill a standard cookie sheet or roasting pan, which both work well for these biscuits. Grease the cookie sheet or roasting pan lightly.

Begin making rolls by squeezing a piece of dough and pinching it off. Each roll should be about the size of the fist of the child I was when my mother first let me try making a biscuit. Now, my hands are turning into hers.

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Fill the pan with rolls, cover with a clean cloth, and let rise for 20 minutes while your oven heats the kitchen. When they have risen, prick each roll very lightly with a fork.

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Pop those rolls into the oven and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. A couple minutes before you pull them out, open the oven and lightly rub a stick of butter over the top of the rolls. Finish baking, and remove from heat. For best results, transfer the rolls onto a cooling rack. Serve with love, while they are still warm.

This is my mother’s table, this the Madonna of my Grandmother. This is the recipe for my mother’s bread. This is the way that I tasted my mother’s love.

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The Elf Child

By Kate

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It is the morning of All Hallow’s Eve and I’ve already bid farewell to a pirate and a rather dapper vampire headed to school. In an hour I will head out to teach a class dressed as a pumpkin patch, vines twining about my leggings, a blaze orange hunting cap upon my head, bearing a pumpkin baby in a plump plush costume that each of my four children has worn, each time bringing great delight to the world at large. My unicorn ballerina, an organized soul for an almost-four-year-old, and is currently playing trick or treat in the pantry, while simultaneously re-organizing it for me.

I do not excel at the organization of pantries, or at the crafting of costumes. The thought of a craft store makes my heart beat faster- in sheer terror. However, I do excel at encouraging creativity in my children. Granted, this can be disconcerting when I walk into their room, which is in a constant state of riotous imaginative play (I think) but is useful when they concoct their own costumes without my assistance.

I am also willing to stop cleaning my house at any time (providing I have started) and to sit down and read out loud to my children. This I learned from my mother. My mother, an English major and a literature teacher, spent a solid 20 years of her life seated on a battered couch draped with several of her 9 children, nursing one and reading out loud to the rest. We read Little House on the Prairie, and Caddie Woodlawn, and a thousand other books which were battered and beaten badly over the years, but a love of literature was instilled deeply into each of her children. One thing that I always noticed while reading, say, the Little House books, was that the children in the one room schoolhouses learned a lot of poetry. Poetry has fallen out of fashion, in conjunction with the lack of rhyme and meter. While there is some wonderful modern work out there, you just don’t hear a whole lot of grade schoolers reciting Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, or the derivative work that followed. This is probably for the best.

I always wanted my children to recite poetry but as I mentioned I’m not very organized. So far my efforts have included scattering hundred year old books of children’s poetry around the house, particularly in the bathrooms, which is working pretty well. However, the one poem that all my children DO have memorized is on that my mother read to us, one that is practically impossible not to memorize, one that James Whitcomb Riley wrote and published in 1885.

Originally titled The Elf Child, this poem is written in the Hoozier dialect of Indiana, which is surprisingly catchy and delightful, and based on a true story. Riley’s father, Captain Rueben Riley, took in a nine year old orphan girl, who helped his wife with housework and her four children in return for her room and board. After the supper dishes were cleared away, she told the children ghost stories, and inspired this poem, which is the perfect fit for Halloween:

Little Orphant Annie
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep;
An’ all us other children, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun
A-list’nin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you

Ef you

Don’t

Watch

Out!
Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers,–
An’ when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press,
An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’-wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an’ roundabout:–
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you

Ef you

Don’t

Watch

Out!
An’ one time a little girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin,
An’ make fun of ever’ one, an’ all her blood-an’-kin;
An’ wunst, when they was “company,” an’ ole folks wuz there,
She mocked ’em an’ shocked ’em, an’ said she didn’t care!
An’ thist as she kicked her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin’ by her side,
An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed what she’s about!
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you

Ef you

Don’t
Watch

Out!
An’ little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away,–
You better mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you

Ef you

Don’t

Watch

Out!

 

 

In Pittsburgh

On Friday afternoon I sat with my harp in a small second floor chapel in a former orphanage that has become a personal care, skilled nursing, and hospice home. The chapel is serene, scented with a hundred years of beeswax. There are honey colored wooden floors. Light streams through windows that overlook a beautiful courtyard.

I was there to play for a memorial service for the residents who have died at Canterbury Place during the past year. The service was woven together with prayers from the Anglican, Catholic, and Jewish traditions, to reflect the dominant faith traditions of the people who live and die there. Candles were lit. Stones were placed. Lilies were given.

Pittsburgh was once called the City of Churches. In every neighborhood, churches and chapels and synagogues stand. The faith of the men and women who built this city is written in stone and glass, rooted in faith and reaching for the heavens.

Pittsburgh was born out of fire and water. A city of three rivers, where the Allegheny and Monongahela meet to form the Ohio, the site initially offered settlers smooth transport for glass, born in fire and shipped down river. Later, the white hot transformation of iron ore into steel heated the economy to a fever pitch and created a massive demand for men to work the mills. Immigrants from Eastern Europe streamed into the city. Economic migrants, these men and women brought with them their traditions, their faith, and the hope that this new world would offer them a better life. In this new world, they gathered together to celebrate their faith.

The very first Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh was the Tree of Life Synagogue.

On Saturday morning I sat in the cavernous basement of a massive Presbyterian Cathedral while my daughter danced in a studio above. The church is located in the heart of a struggling and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and offers a vibrant array of arts programs in music, dance, and theater to the wider community. Slowly the news passed through the large and echoing room, in whispers. An active shooter, a synagogue in Squirrel Hill, a mile away. Four dead, and they haven’t caught him yet. It was like a game of telephone but with nothing lost, every detail distinct. You watched the person at the next table freeze in horror at the whispered truth.

A child at the next table said “Many of my friends are Jewish and they live in Squirrel Hill and go to synagogue there. What will happen to them?”

Later, walking out into the cold rain with my eight year old daughter, I’m searching for the words to answer her questions. Is this really happening? Is this happening here?

When I was young I wanted to save the world. I tried to imagine my role on the world stage, what it would contain. I wondered how I would possibly develop a philosophy brilliant enough to change the whole world. The older I get the more that I realize how much humble my role is. So much of the work I have been given is simply to serve my family, and the people that I encounter in my daily life. To wash diapers and wash the feet of an elderly woman. To visit the lonely. To offer the widow and the orphan a space in my own home. To protect the innocence of my children in the face of the darkness in the world, and to nurture the light of their faith.

I have had the privilege to work with people who are close to death. To teach classes and play music for people facing their final years with dignity and grace. I have sung at a deathbed while holding a newborn child. I have entered a room just as a soul was leaving it. The more time I spend with those who are dying the more confidant I am in the truth that the dead are not gone, but remain in communion with us.

It is not death of the body that we should fear, it is despair. Despair that causes us to live in darkness, to lash out in darkness, to unleash evil into the world.

We are called to believe in the grace of God in the face of suffering. To trust in the grace of God in the face of horror. To preserve the life of grace within the soul, and with that still small light to light the world around us. To root our lives in faith.

On Saturday night the people of Pittsburgh spilled into the streets for a candlelit vigil around the Tree of Life synagogue to gather together and light the darkness.

In Pittsburgh there are candles. There are lilies. There are stones.

In Pittsburgh there is mourning.

In Pittsburgh there is faith.

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