Over the years my role in the kitchen has changed. Starting out at an early age, I was the ever eager assistant in the kitchen, working along side my grandmothers or mom, where I was just as excited to scoop, measure, stir, and wash dishes as I was to sample the end products of our efforts. I think the women in my life were just as eager to help me transition beyond the role of apprentice as I was, after all they could enjoy the spoils without the time and the muss.
When I was in fourth grade, my mom and I were living in Ellensburg, Washington. My mom taught Special Education classes at Central Washington University, and was also the director of a school for children with special needs. Ellensburg, a smallish, rural farming and college town whose population drops by 10,000+ every June, is located squarely in the middle of Washington state. Given the large amount agriculture and livestock in the valley many of my classmates were involved in 4-H Club. When the flyer for 4-H was handed out for us to take home to our parents I was ecstatic. The options for 4-H Club in Ellensburg at the time were primarily focused around farming and animal husbandry. I was already imagining the conversation with my mom and I was sure she would see the logic in letting me join.
“Horses?!” was my mom’s first response. “Sure!” I replied. I knew several of my classmates whose parents rented pastures, and horses seemed a perfectly logical choice. What followed was an extended conversation about logistics and finances which ultimately meant no to the horse. In order to bolster my spirits my mom read down the list of offered clubs. Small livestock. “Yes!” I cried, already imagining a wooly lamb of my own. My mom reminded me that this would be met with the same challenges as a horse. They had a small animal club….but that was meant for dogs and cats, not hamsters, of which I had two. I wasn’t interested in growing plants. There was a club for riflery. No. The last club on the list was sewing and baking….I wasn’t very excited by thought of sewing with a bunch of girls (yes, girls, this was after all 1971 in a conservative farming community), but cooking held a definite appeal.
After our first 4-H meeting I was already imagining the beautiful blue ribbons I would win at the Kittitas County Fair. Our 4-H leaders promised us that we would all learn to sew and how to bake (!!). Since I already knew how to bake I figured a blue ribbon was a given. I don’t remember too many specifics from our first 4-H Club meetings other than we primarily **talked** about sewing. I emphasize **talked** because learning to sew only happened as a result of my mom teaching me in order to complete my 4-H project at home, a red jumper with tiny yellow flowers. Each meeting I asked about the cooking portion of our club. “We’ll get to it,” was our leaders’ standard response.
Meetings came and went, until one evening when our 4-H leaders announced we would be baking a chocolate cake. Although a bit concerned about how ten+ girls were going to be able to bake a cake together in one kitchen, I was thrilled! That was until I saw the ingredients on the counter….eggs, oil, and a box of Betty Crocker cake mix. The weight of the disappointment was unbearable. This was not baking.
I don’t remember much about my 4-H Club meetings after that. I did enter my red jumper with the yellow flowers in the fair. I won a red ribbon, 2nd place for my age group. I didn’t join 4-H Club in the fifth grade. My apprenticeship was much better served with the likes of my grandmothers and my mom.
While in junior high, I often assumed the role of line cook in my parents’ kitchen, prepping salads, and with increasing frequency, soux chef, delving into side dishes and desserts. During high school I had full access to baking at home or at my grandma Lorenz’s, the only limitations on my baking and cooking were the ingredients on hand. Once married and with children of my own I coached my own assistants and apprentices, Jennifer and Eric. Sharing a kitchen with someone else is much like a dance, with steps and moves that change to rhythms, beats, and tempo, requiring coordination, attention, and communication. After sharing a kitchen with someone for many years the work becomes seamless, anticipating each others’ moves ahead of time. Jennifer and Eric each have kitchens of their own now; I miss the coordinated syncopation that came with baking and cooking with each of them.
In 2006, the year that Eric graduated from high school, I got Lance, our now almost eleven year old yellow lab, as a means of warding of what I had anticipated would be bumpy transition to the empty nest. Lance’s exuberance kept me somewhat distracted from missing Eric and he soon became my shadow. Labs are notoriously food driven, and Lance is no exception to that. In fact, Lance excels in this area. Wherever there is food, there is Lance. He is my steadfast companion in the kitchen, and this certainly has its advantages when I have a spill to clean up. Lance is always at the ready, eager to help.
On one such occasion I was preparing dishes for an extended family weekend at the beach where each couple was responsible for a meal. I liked being able to prep as much as I could ahead of time due to the small kitchen and the limited range of kitchen utensils at the beach cabin. A double recipe of Mexican Chicken Lasagna was prepped, wrapped in foil, in the refrigerator, and ready to be put in the cooler for the drive. Salad fixings were cleaned and ready to go. All that was left was dessert. I was looking for something that not only paired well with the main dish but would also travel well. Coconut Pound Cake would be perfect. My step-mom Bonnie’s recipe for Coconut Pound Cake is pretty straight forward, can easily be transformed into stunning with the use of a bundt cake pan, and nudged across the line into spectacular when paired with fresh raspberries.
The cake baked up beautifully, the bundt pan released without sticking, and all that was left to do was to let the cake cool before wrapping it up.
August in Yakima can be quite hot, and the day I was baking the Coconut Pound Cake was no exception. Lance’s normal robust enthusiasm was tempered by the heat, normally underfoot he instead found a cool spot on the linoleum and did not move. Having a few items left to pack I quickly went down to our bedroom.
Within a minute or so I heard a sound which could only be interpreted as trouble. I ran back up stairs yelling as I ran, as loudly as possible, “Lance! No!! No! No!” Lance had the entire cake on the floor and was in the process of devouring as much as he could before I got to him. By the time I crossed the room there was less than one-third of the cake left. Lance gave me a sheepish look followed by, what is recognized by anyone who has met him, his trademark burp. My reactions in situations such as this are to look at the culprit, which in this case was me. I had left the cake on the kitchen counter to cool, and I really should’ve known better. I was hoping that the two-thirds Lance ate would not make him sick. Luckily I still had time to make another cake.
I started over. Coconut Pound Cake 2.0. The second cake went together as smoothly as the first. This time I put a cooling rack across the back two burners of the stove top, this was much farther back from the edge of the counter than where the first cake sat on the kitchen counter. I had learned my lesson. As before, with the combined heat of the day and heat of the kitchen, Lance was out cold on the kitchen floor . I didn’t think twice about going to the bathroom. Mistake.
Upon returning to the kitchen the first thing I noticed was a *huge* chunk taken out of the center of the cake. “Lance…nooo!” Lance’s response, an unapologetic burp.
Coconut Pound Cake 3.0 came together just as nicely as the previous two cakes. With an increased level of caution and no trust for Lance whatsoever I managed to successfully cool the cake and prepare it for transport.
In the years since the Coconut Pound Cake incident, Lance has remained my stedfast kitchen companion, he intuitively knows when to lay down, eyes following me all the while, and when to sit–ready for possible clean up. Lest I forget, he periodically reminds me that he is not to be trusted. Over the years he has derailed more than just a dinner or desert. On one occasion Lance ate two full pounds of cooked Italian sausage. The sausage was just taken off of the stove to drain in a colander in the kitchen sink; Lance easily annihilated it in under two minutes. He ate the entire front row of iced brownies off of a serving platter intended for a Sons of Norway meeting, with nary a trace of slobber nor disturbance to any other brownies on the platter. In addition, Lance has generously removed countless PB&J sandwiches and pieces of toast from my granddaughter’s tiny hands, and on more than one occasion he has removed the first two rows of cookie dough off of the cookie sheet waiting for their turn in the oven.
Lance’s kitchen shenanigans have become less frequent over the last few years, having more to do with his arthritis and a bad knee than with him acquiring kitchen etiquette. I have become accustomed to baking with Lance in the kitchen, and now with Bailey and Annie as well. I step over their tails. They watch and wait. We dance.
Lance’s Coconut Pound Cake
2 sticks butter, room temperature
2/3 c shortening (I prefer Crisco, butter flavored)
3 c sugar
2 t coconut flavoring
3 c all purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1 c milk
4 oz coconut
In mixer on medium speed cream butter and shortening; add sugar cream until light and fluffy. On low speed add one egg @ a time, until incorporated, scraping bowl down between each egg. Add coconut flavoring.
Combine flour and baking powder in a medium bowl.
Starting and ending w/ flour mixture, alternate the addition of flour and milk, mixing at low speed until smooth. Add coconut.
Pour into greased bundt pan (or can be divided into two loaf pans). Bake @ 350 for 70 min. Best made the night before.