“Can we walk to school without you this year?”
I should have been singing with joy when I heard this last September – they were in 6th and 4th grade, after all – plus they’d be walking to school with their friends. And there were about a thousand friendly neighbors to help them find their way, if god forbid, they should get lost. But still, they were taking a flying leap out of the nest, and I was in no hurry to let them jump.
But I resisted my usual obsessive-compulsive-mother-hen instincts and instead put on my bravest smile and kissed my little chicks goodbye at the front door. Then I got busy with the vacuum cleaner so I couldn’t flutter into the car to follow them like the stalking, hawkish mama I am.
And would you believe it? They survived!
At pickup time, there they were at the school entrance – smiling and proud and eager to walk home. Without me.
“We’ll meet you at home, Mom. Can we just go? Please?” Ouch.
And suddenly, there it was again – swooping down on me like a shrieking, red-taloned bird of prey. The mid-life crisis was back.
These little creatures I’ve created – they can feed themselves! They can clean themselves (if they choose to)! They can cross the street alone! The enormity of the fact that they can survive in the suburban wild sent me into a tailspin of familiar older-mommy questions.
What now? The kids are aging, so am I… Why did I dump that corporate career? I’ve been focused solely on my kids for 11 years. Who am I now that my kids don’t need me? What’s next for me? The questions went on and on like a broken smoke detector, chirping in my ear every ten minutes to remind me that something more must be done. Soon.
Of course I know that the mommy-ing is never really over. These children had simply gnawed off another chunk of my heart and carted it off with them in their big-kid backpacks. They still need me for a few things – at least until they learn to drive. But this walking milestone couldn’t be ignored. It was big.
And so I turned back to the places that give me comfort: the familiar, honeyed luxuries of baking and writing and dance. I wrote a little in my journal. I went to Jazzercise class every day for a week. I baked challah and ciabatta and whole wheat bread. And at the end of the week, I returned once again to my favorite cookbook, Baking with Julia.
I found a recipe for oven-roasted plum cakes. Ah, a glorious reprieve!
The recipe was a promise that my kids would stay with me for at least as long as it took to finish dessert. With this bribe, I could keep them home and safe for a few minutes longer.
So I tucked my head down into the satisfying whirl of sugar and butter and vanilla and eggs. I actually squawked with delight as my plums split perfectly on the first try. The house bubbled up with the reassuring scent of warming sugar and I knew that all would be right with the world.
After their long migration home (12 minutes!) and a light dinner, we shared the adorable desserts. Each ramekin housed little half-moons of plum, all sleepy and resting in a downy pillow of brown sugar cake.
The mid-life crisis was averted – at least temporarily.
The kids slurped down their dessert in two gulps, and raced each other to the door. Their friends were ready to play, and I was alone again.
Clearly, I would need a lot more cake to make it through to the other side of adolescence.
Oven-Roasted Plum Cakes Recipe
Contributing baker: Marcel Desaulniers
Baking With Julia, Based on the PBS Series Hosted by Julia Child
Written by Dorie Greenspan
Makes 12 servings
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar, divided use
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon minced orange zest
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup buttermilk
6 large ripe plums, halved and pitted
Melted butter, for coating the custard or soufflé cups
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Coat the insides of 12 8- or 9-ounce custard or soufflé cups with melted butter and set them on a jelly-roll plan; reserve.
Working in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or with a hand-held mixer, cream the butter, 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar, and the granulated sugar together on medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and continue to beat for 3 minutes more, or until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture whitens. Add one of the eggs, increase the speed to high, and beat for about half a minute; scrape down the bowl and paddle, add the second egg, and beat again for 30 seconds. Add the zest and vanilla and, still on high, beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds more. Reduce the mixer speed to low, add the flour and baking soda, and beat for just 15 seconds. Pour in the buttermilk and mix for just 30 seconds more. Finish blending the ingredients with a rubber spatula (a precaution to avoid over mixing the batter).
Baking the Cakes
Spoon about 2 tablespoons of batter into each of the prepared cups. Place a half plum, cut side up, into each cup, pushing the plum down only a little. (Try to leave some of the plum above batter level so that when the cake rises, the plum will still show.) Sprinkle an equal amount of the remaining brown sugar over the cut surface of each of the plums. Place the baking pan with the filled soufflé cups on the center rack of the oven and bake for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the cake part of the dessert comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and cool the cakes in their cups for 8 to 10 minutes before unmolding.
Unmolding the Cakes
To unmold the cakes, run a short icing spatula or blunt knife around the edge of the cakes; if necessary, work it under the cakes to release the bottoms. Lift the cakes out with the spatula and, keeping them right side up, place them in the center of individual dessert plates. Serve the cakes warm (although they are great at room temperature), accompanying them with ice cream, whipped cream, or chocolate sauce if desired.
Wrapped airtight, the cakes can be kept at room temperature for a day.