Well, that went by in a hurry.
Thanksgiving is a week from today. Winter begins a month from tonight (at 11:19 p.m., if you’re keeping track). Christmas is five weeks from yesterday, 2020 begins six weeks from yesterday, and that’ll be it for 2019.
I’ve done a lot but nowhere near all of my winter preparation. I’m still counting on a couple of weeks of nice, warm weather before the cold stuff really sets in, the time that I guess would now be called Indigenous Peoples Summer. It used to be called something else.
This year I’m undertaking a few experiments. One builds on something I tried last year with what seemed to be a good deal of success: I’ve put cotton balls with a few drops of peppermint oil on them by the furnace filter. The process adds a minty fresh scent to the house, which is nice, but that’s not its purpose. Mice and other annoying creatures simply cannot abide peppermint. It spoils their sense of smell. So they go elsewhere, which is exactly where I want them to go.
The new experiment this winter is my cheap window treatments. I got a big sheet of thick – think shower curtain – plastic, black on one side and white on the other. We know from third-grade science (and from those small novelty globes that are sealed up and have four paddles inside that spin when you put them in the sunlight) that black absorbs the sun’s heat while white reflects it. So I’ve cut the plastic to fit several windows that aren’t needed for light, and attached battens to the top and bottom of each, the top ones being long enough to extend a little beyond the curtain rods.
Then I stuck them between the windows and the curtains. They’re black side out for now, so they should absorb a bit of such warmth as the sun has to offer this winter and help, just a little, I know, to heat the house. Come spring, I’ll reverse them, white side out, and they might aid in cooling the place. We’ll see. I don’t imagine it doing any harm, anyway.
It’s the time of year when our wintry social life picks up, too. I remember this especially from my childhood and from my time in New England, where late autumn is party time. One of life’s most basic delights is coming out of the cold, into a home that welcomes you by the aromas of seasonal cooking.
A favorite memory is of something my grandmother made. She would festoon cored and peeled apples with Red Hots, the tiny red cinnamon candies (do they still make them?), put them in a baking tin, put some more Red Hots down the middle where the cores were, and bake them. They were tasty enough, but the real payoff was how they made the house smell, a combination of apple and cinnamon that comes readily to mind decades later.
Because of the season, now is when I start getting requests for “that recipe.” It’s something I published in this space a few years ago to great response. So I guess it’s time to print it again – it’s for something that’s perfect to take to a Thanksgiving dinner or to any other seasonal gathering, though it is also messy to make, at least when I do it. It comes from my late friend Marjorie Thompson, and I try to make it at least once a year in her honor. Here it is:
Marjorie's apple cake
• ½ cup oil (canola is best, I think)
• 2 eggs
• 1 teaspoon real vanilla extract (or a little more – what the heck)
• 1½ cups flour (I use unbleached all-purpose)
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 cup sugar
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (or more, or less)
• A pinch of salt (always use a pinch of salt – trust me)
• 3 large apples (Gala and Fuji seem especially good for this)
Core and peel the apples and slice them as thinly as you can. Mix the wet ingredients and the dry ingredients separately, then combine them. The result will be so thick you’re sure you did something wrong. You didn’t. Fold in the apples, making sure they’re evenly spread in the batter. Pour, scoop or shove the batter into a heavily greased glass 8x8 baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for an hour. Stick in a toothpick after 55 minutes; if it comes out clean you can put it back and nobody will know. (OK, I made that up. If it comes out clean, it means the cake is done.) Let it cool, lightly covered, for a long time because it takes a long time to cool. You can turn it out of the dish after it is completely cooled, but you can also serve it from the dish, cornbread-style. The recipe can be doubled, and should be if you want a piece for yourself.
You can vary things a little, but don’t go crazy. I do tend to add extra cinnamon. I get my spices from the lovely lady at the Spice House. She is the daughter of the late spice guru Bill Penzey of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and was raised to think of spices as very important, almost a culture of their own. Her cinnamon and vanilla extract are unsurpassed (and her ground chipotle and garlic power will spoil you for anything else).
This year I wondered, though not enough to try it, if a version using fresh pears and ginger would be good. (I love pears and last week succeeded in waiting until a pear was ripe before eating it. You need to get pears at least four or five days before you plan to eat them, because in the store they’re green as gourds. The way to tell if they’re ripe is to gently press the stem end. If it gives way, have at it!)
I’ve also thought, though again I haven’t tried it, that distributing some sour cherries – I imagine the frozen ones would do – through the batter might make a good surprise in a sweet apple cake. Likewise blueberries (though olives and capers are definitely out).
While your cake is baking, and for a while afterwards, your house will smell festive, and your cake will be welcome at holiday events.
And it is my fervent hope, though I have no evidence of it, that the rich aroma of baking cinnamon will drive mice away.