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Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Well, my book group is the people who, when you screw up the dessert, they’ll still eat it and say “yum.”

I had signed up for dessert. It all started so innocently — cake and ice cream, easy, right? So I made a 1-2-3-4 cake from a really old stack of recipes that is somehow connected to Grammy (more on that another time). Great, simple cake, three layers, not too thick so there’s plenty of room for icing.

Then I started the icing. Again, a Gram recipe, this one marked as “Excellent!” in her handwriting. Caramel icing, meaning lots of light brown sugar, melted and swirling with cream, butter and vanilla. The kitchen smelled heavenly.

The trouble showed itself when I had to let the icing cool to room temperature, then beat it to thicken it up. Hmm, not much time. And I had used one of my favorite All-Clad pots, very heavy and thus superb at holding heat. I pulled out the arsenal of “cool it down” activities: The fridge for a bit. Ice cubes in a bowl, set the pot into that. Blowing on the bottom of the pot. Raking my fingers through my hair.

The icing would not set.

It was 7:30, time to actually BE at book group. I had three lovely layers of cake, two pints of ice cream . . . and a huge pot of caramel “sauce.”

I schlepped it all off to book group, arriving late and frazzled. In the warmth of that familiar circle of friends, I started to calm down. It helped tremendously that we were eating Bettina’s great food (for those of you who don’t know Loulies, that’s Bettina and Suzanne, and you want to know their food).

And the solution dawned: If the icing would not set, then I’d shred the cake too. Done. A pile of palm-sized cake chunks, piled on the antique cake plate and served with Bettina’s silver tongs, went around the table followed by ice cream — and the icing in a pitcher.

I love my book group: They said “yum,” and poured on the icing.

Caramel sauce (not icing) from Baking Family

I-Love-My-Book-Group Caramel Sauce

Serves 10 readers, plus a husband and three boys who came home later

  • 4-1/2 cups light brown sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups light cream
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Combine the sugar, cream and salt in a big-enough saucepan for them to boil up. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Continue cooking until the mixture forms a very soft ball in cold water, about 230°F if you have a candy thermometer. Remove mixture from heat and stir in the butter. Cool to lukewarm, or until it’s time to take the sauce somewhere. Add vanilla and mix in well.

I love food given or gotten as a random gift. Someone goes to the gourmet shop and gets your favorite coffee, or they bring you a bottle of good olive oil from a trip to France. You give a new neighbor maple syrup and barbeque sauce — condiments for their shiny refrigerator.

The gift of food jumps to a whole different level when it is homemade. A summer jam, or toffee pulled in someone’s hot kitchen, or even fruitcake — improved by incremental addition of an entire bottle of rum — is a gift that glides like a queen into any kitchen. For all its plainness, Grammy’s custard sauce had that homemade gift-of-food sparkle.

Custard sauce would arrive in Grammy’s bag in a large and well-worn former Peter Pan peanut-butter jar, lid firmly anchored over a square of waxed paper to ensure a tight seal. The jar of billowy pale-yellow custard would be whisked into the fridge. Theoretically, it was going to come out after dinner, to be poured over drained canned apricots, or fresh strawberries, sliced and lightly sugared.

Custard Sauce from Baking FamilyThe siren call was too strong, though: In mid-afternoon, my middle brother and father would be found leaning over the counter, spoons in hand, with a random bowl of something that “needed a little sauce.” Or they would abandon pretense and dive spoon-first into the jar, claiming “medicinal value” to a spoonful or two of custard sauce straight up.

This is that custard, creamy, soothing, perfect for vanilla-lovers. Custard sauce can dress up any fruit, turning “but that’s just cut-up fruit” into dessert. It’s a perfect recipe companion to the Surprise Meringue Cookies that use three egg whites. And it certainly still offers a beneficial something-something for those of us who eat it straight from the jar.

Custard Sauce

If you like a lighter vanilla flavor, cut the quantity of vanilla extract in half.

Makes 1-1/2 cups

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1-1/2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Off the stove, put yolks into top of double boiler and beat in sugar and salt. Put double boiler over medium heat. Add milk gradually, stirring constantly. Cook mixture over hot water, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens to coat the spoon (about 7-9 minutes). Do not overcook; mixture will thicken more as it cools.

Remove pan from heat and mix in vanilla. Cool slightly, pour into your favorite recycled glass jar and store in refrigerator. (In theory, this keeps for three or four days in the refrigerator. My jar is empty well before then.)

Recipe and photo copyright 2010 Garside Group LLC

“Stewed.” Now there’s a word from days gone by. Stewed tomatoes, stewed pudding, stewed chicken. In the worst cases, stewed can signify “boiled until bland.” Good stewing, however, can be quite something. When you stew a fruit the right way, you get compote, sauce, bright colors and often the best flavor that fruit can provide. And sometimes, you’re stretching the season for a fruit that is here and gone too fast. Simple stewed rhubarb is just such a winner.

(For those of you who right now are saying, “but it’s not a fruit!”: Sorry, in 1947 the U.S. Customs Court in Buffalo, New York, ruled that since rhubarb — technically an “herbaceous perennial” — is used as a fruit here in the U.S. of A., it would be called thus. Lowered the taxes on the stuff, too. Who knew that vegetables were taxed more highly than fruit?)

Stewed rhubarb from Baking Family and Garside Group LLCWhen you’re at the store or farmers’ market, it’s worth seeking out the reddest rhubarb you can find for this dish; the greener rhubarb stems will shine in something like Loulies’ spicy rhubarb chutney. Since rhubarb has such high water content, there’s no need to add more. This is just the fruit, sugar and some lemon juice to help bring out the zing. (I tried lime juice, thinking is would be even better, but there was just not enough punch.)

You ask, “so what do I serve this with?” I’ve plopped it on an English muffin with butter for breakfast. Stewed rhubarb does not require a fussy pairing — a dollop on a slice of poundcake, or layers of stewed rhubarb with sweetened creme fraiche. Just enjoy it now, before the season passes.

Stewed Rhubarb

Adapted from Bon Appétit magazine.

Makes about 3 cups

  • 1-1/2 pounds fresh rhubarb, washed and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Combine all ingredients in a large pot (room enough for the rhubarb to move around and bubble up). Stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat and cover pan; simmer until rhubarb is tender, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Refrigerate when cool.

Photo and recipe copyright 2010 Garside Group LLC

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