September is almost gone. The month that celebrates autumn and wedding anniversaries and birthdays has moved like a tender breeze through my fingertips – far, far too quickly. I wish there was some way to catch September and bottle her, so when winter comes I could breathe in the fragrance of starting to cool and still there are blue skies. And this September, the fragrance would include warm embraces from strangers become friends.
I met Bianca in StorySessions, an online writing group, at the beginning of the year. She lives in Northern California, and when she’s not working as a business consultant you’ll find her caring for women who have been marginalized. She understands their plight well. Her world began in Communist-controlled Romania, and she came to the United States longing for liberty. It was a treacherous journey for a woman who spoke no English and had no family by her side. Her words are washed in grace, and her eyes penetrate even the hardest of souls.
Melissa lived a few blocks from me for years, but we never knew it. We connected on Twitter with a common love of food and Jesus, and have encouraged each other with 140-character seeds of hope for a year. She now lives in Dallas, where she is Executive Sous Chef for a private club in a posh highrise. This summer, she joined me in the START Experiment, an online community that inspires people to look fear in the eye and say “not today – there are better things in store.”
Bianca came to CasaRock because of IdeaCamp: Human Care, a two-day conference that was more an ongoing conversation about real change than it was statistic-laden keynotes. Lindsey (also a StorySessions member and amazing STARTer with a passion for writing) and her friend Tausha accepted the invitation to stay as well. And Melissa? Well, she simply wanted to celebrate a day off with a road trip and time in the kitchen, cooking and talking.
They were the continuation of a month full of avatar becomes actual reality moments. The month began with a run along the Natchez Trace Parkway. Libby, Kim, Ryan, Karen, and Brittany were there. Until that Labor Day morning, not one person was flesh-and-bone real to me – yet I knew them well, prayed for them, cheered them on. All because of the START Experiment.
There are people who shun the whole concept of virtual community, who say that it’s impossible to have real relationship with people tethered together by posts and tweets and hangouts and chats. I’ve had more than one person give me an “are you serious?” look when I’ve talked about the folks staying in my home or meeting me for dinner. But every conversation over coffee and big dream discussed over a sauté pan has been a reminder that community isn’t bound by space and time. It’s woven together by threads of the most common things and something that feels ever so slightly supernatural.
September is departing. But the friendships remain. And to celebrate them – and all things good – Melissa and Bianca shared their special autumn recipes with me. Of course, there’s pumpkin. And there is a beautiful twist on bread pudding that is wholly delightful as a side or a main dish. Melissa even created an amazing glaze for pork loin – actually invented it on the spot. Everyone at the dinner table loved it. Every familiar face – and every brand new one.
Thank you September, for a lovely month of strangers become friends. Here’s to many more.
Bianca’s Pumpkin Dump Cake
Makes one 9” X 13” cake
1 – 15 oz can pumpkin
1- 12 oz can nonfat evaporated milk
1 cup white sugar
2 t. pumpkin pie spice
½ t. salt
1 package yellow cake mix
½ cup butter, melted
½ cups chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare 9×13 inch pan. In a large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, sugar, salt, and spices. Stir in the milk, then beat in the eggs one at a time. Pour pumpkin mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the yellow cake mix over the pumpkin mixture, then sprinkle the walnuts evently. Drizzle melted butter over all. Bake for 55 minutes to an hour, or until the top is golden brown. Cool slightly and serve.
Melissa’s Pumpkin Coconut Macaroons
Makes approximately 2 dozen
1 small bag of shredded sweetened coconut
4 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup of pureed pumpkin
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
1 small can fat free condensed milk
Preheat oven to 350. Toast the coconut on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 2-5 minutes, stirring occasionally until it is light golden brown. Set aside to cool. Whip the egg whites until foamy, and then add the sugar. Continue whipping the egg whites until they form soft peaks. In a separate bowl, carefully stir together the condensed milk, pumpkin, spices, vanilla extract, and toasted coconut.Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites a little at a time into the coconut mixture. Some wispy white streaks are okay, because if you are too rough with the mixture you actually run the risk of deflating the egg whites! Using a small cookie scoop (2-3 oz size), place scoops of the mixture on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes or until dark golden brown on the bottom. You’ll see the color around the edges. (Cooking times can vary based on your oven and the humidity outside- just keep an eye on them because they burn easily). Wait until they cool to the touch to get them off the pan.
Melissa’s Savory Kale Bread Pudding
Makes 1 9″ X 13″ pan
1 pint half and half
1 pint heavy cream
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 bunch kale, finely shredded
1 leek, finely sliced
1 red bell pepper, diced
3 tablespoons of butter
6-8 thin slices of sourdough bread
1.5 cups grated Swiss cheese
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350. Spray a 9×13 glass pan with plenty of nonstick spray. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, half and half, and heavy cream. Set aside. In a saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Once it foams up, add all of the vegetables and the garlic and saute everything until it is soft. Season the vegetables to taste. Take the bread slices and soak them in the milk mixture as if you were making french toast. Do not let them sit, though, just coat both sides well.
In the 9×13 pan, layer the bread edge-to-edge on the bottom, as if you were making lasagna. The next layer will be half of the vegetable mixture. Spread it evenly over the soaked bread. The next layer will be more bread (you can cut a piece in half and squish it to the edge if the bread is oblong and does not fill the pan evenly) Finish the top with the other half of the vegetable mixture. Top evenly with the grated Swiss cheese and bake for about an hour or until the sides are golden brown and the top is bubbly.
Melissa’s Tennessee Honey, Onion, and Fig Glaze
Makes 2 cups
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
8 fresh figs, quartered
1 cup Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey whiskey
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
One half stick of cold butter, sliced
salt and pepper, to taste
In a saute pan over medium heat, cook the onions and figs in until they start to caramelize. With the pan off the heat, add the whiskey. You’ll need to catch the whiskey on fire to concentrate the flavors. If you have a gas stove, it will probably ignite on its own. Be careful not to slosh the whiskey out of the pan so that you will not have a bigger fire on your hands than is really necessary. Continue stirring to dissipate the flames. If you have an electric stove, you can use a long match to ignite the whiskey. Be careful!
After the flames die down, add the Dijon mustard and vinegar and stir to combine. With the pan off the heat, add the sliced butter and continue stirring until the sauce looks shiny. Make sure the butter is cold and the pan is off the heat, otherwise it won’t be beautiful and creamy but just greasy! Season with salt and pepper to your taste.