I have just spent a week taking care of someone I love who has been very sick for a long time, something a circle of us have been doing in rotation for over a year. We travel, short distances and long. We do what we can and often that takes the form of things we thought we couldn't.
This time I crossed an ocean. Now I am in that odd physical state of suspension between time zones, where I want to check my watch when I am hungry to see what meal I should eat, and my heart is in at least two places, too. And there is what my West Indian friend used to call "ruction" all around me, beyond this gnarly situation of mine: one friend lost her dad two weeks ago, and now her brother is in the hospital facing terrible odds. Another friend's mother died, and her brother is in the same condition. Flu and blizzards. Falls and accidents.
I want light, just a morsel of it, to keep me going.
Yesterday, I sat down to write (butt in the chair!) but no sooner had I done so than my husband called from the back 40 to say there was a ewe in trouble and please bring the birthing gloves. Tis the season.
Two little black hooves greeted me, under the tail of that ewe. And a snout. But the mama was making no progress and her sounds told me she was hitting a personal wall. It's a sound I recognize, even with a language barrier. A few well-timed tugs brought the lamb out--a big one! and black as licorice!--but didn't keep mama from that wall. Usually a sniff or two of the new lamb's head will be enough to restore a tired sheep, so we ferried the slippery little item up to mama's face, but in this case did not achieve the desired result. She laid her self down.
The borders between places on maps are well-defined. What divides more nebulous things--awake/asleep, still night/finally dawn, I choose life/I am done with all that--is not always so clearly marked. But there she lay, on that line. I am done with all that, she said.
As I ran out of the house with the birthing gloves, I grabbed two other things: a towel, and a jar of molasses. My husband rubbed the lamb with the towel, subbing in for the maternal licks that both clean and dry the lamb, and stimulate activities like breathing which are an important part of planting one's little hooves on this side of the grass. I dipped my fingers into the molasses jar (rest assured, we keep a separate one just for sheep, so it's safe to eat gingerbread in our house) and swiped it through the mama's lips.
My husband looked dubious. The lamb reserved judgement. The ewe lay there, then worked her jaws a bit. Then a bit more. Her eyes opened, and the glassiness was gone. All right, she said. I'll give it some thought. She sniffed the lamb. That magical nicker in the back of the throat--a sound sheep only make in the presence of their offspring--there it came.
Usually when I want light, I eat lemons. Copious amounts of steamed green things with plenty of olive oil and lemon always help me along. Edible light comes in other forms: a recipe from a new friend (I used pecans instead of walnuts, and the result was very delicious), smeared on top of the most delicious fresh Greek cheese, part of a massive airlift of calories from another friend who watched over my family while I was away.
That same source produced a bag of star anise, surely the most beautiful of the spices. Stress often makes me feel like I have forgotten how to cook, and returning to the tried and true sometimes jump-starts me. I started this blog with baked custard, and with the little stars of friendship in my pocket, I returned to those roots.
baked custard with anise and caramel
- 1/4 c sugar*
- 2 1/2 c milk
- 3 pods star anise
- 1" vanilla bean, snipped open
- 4 eggs
- pinch of salt
In a heavy saucepan, combine the sugar with 2T of water. Heat without stirring over medium heat until the mixture comes to a low boil, and continue to cook until it's a lovely medium amber. Immediately remove the pan from the heat. Dump in the milk, the vanilla bean and the anise pods, and return to low heat. Stir until the now-hardened caramel melts and the mixture returns to a simmer. Back off the heat; allow the spices to steep and the milk to cool slightly.
Heat the oven to 325 and get 6 or 8 little custard cups ready by setting them in a pan that will hold them and some hot water. Put the kettle on. Find a little strainer, and the egg-beater, and a spouted measuring cup.
Fish the spices out of the milk. Beat the eggs in, along with a pinch of salt. Strain into the spouted cup. Divide the strained mixture among the waiting dishes, transfer the pan to the oven shelf, and pour enough hot water from the kettle in the pan to come half way up the sides.
Bake about 35 minutes, watching carefully at the end. For the silkiest texture, you want them just set (no wiggle when you jiggle), not puffed or cracked. They will continue cooking a bit after you remove them from the oven, so err on the under-side. Transfer the cups to a cooling rack and serve the custards either warm or chilled.
*If you like things a little sweeter, go ahead and bump this up to 1/3 c.