Friday, August 22

An Abbey, Abandoned {Cardamom Carrot Muffins & Roast Chicken}

About an hour away, on the banks of the Arkansas river, is the small, agricultural town of Canon City.  The road is lined with apple orchards, pastures, vast fields of alfalfa, a derelict collection of buildings with faded facades and wind-torn signs, and a vineyard...

If there's any indication that this place is more than just a small country farming town, it's this vineyard.  Off the road, down a narrow drive, nestled among ancient oak and hawthorn trees, there is an old neogothic-style abbey.  A hidden gem in this rugged land of cactus and cowboys.  Its spires are barely visible above the trees, which is probably why I've driven past it with out even noticing for so many years. It's surrounded by vineyards, thriving in the rocky soil and intense Colorado sunshine.  Though the abbey was built in the early 1920's, it reminds me of something much older.  Like some of the grand churches in Europe perhaps, which is why I feel at home here.  It was used as a boarding house and school for many decades, and the vineyards were planted by the Benedictine Fathers in the hopes of establishing a world-class winery here in the heart of Colorado.  That never happened, and in the name of Progress, the abbey was eventually closed and abandoned.

There's something to be said about progress, but that will have to wait for another day.  Perhaps there's more to be said about the past.  About ways that are lost and dreams that are forgotten.  Recently the abbey was revived and restored by the historical society; the wild, rocky vineyards have been tamed and tended - and, better late than never, a winery was finally established in the out buildings behind the chapel.  Using grapes from the vineyards as well as other varieties grown locally, these days the abbey produces some of Colorado's finest, most treasured wines.

Sunday, August 10

There's a worm in my dirt cake! {Dirt Cake from scratch}

Ever since I can remember, dirt cake has been a birthday tradition... 

I was never a big fan, but my mother used to make it for my brother every year.  Even now, we're well into our 30s, and my brother still requests it.  I've always joked that dirt cake was just an excuse to cram as many unwholesome ingredients as possible into one bowl and call it "cake."  Still, due in no small part to the prodding of his uncle, now Connor requests it every year for his birthday, as well.  This means that instead of having it just once a year in February, we now have it in August, too.  The tradition lives on.

As with any tradition, gradual change is inevitable.  My mother's recipe - made with Oreos, instant pudding, and cool whip - has been steadily evolving since falling into my hands.  The cool whip was the first to go.  Replaced by real whipped cream, flavoured with pure vanilla and stabilized with powdered sugar.  Next I banished the pudding, so sickeningly sweet, artificial flavours and all.  It was replaced by a simple, creamy, old-fashioned vanilla custard.  Last weekend we celebrated Connor's birthday, and I made one final change.  I swapped out the Oreos (now questionable for those with peanut allergies) for rich, homemade chocolate cookies.  Now, I dare say, I'm happy with how far this recipe has come.  Like a ungainly child with a greedy sweet tooth, the cake has matured into a sophisticated adult, balanced, not overly sweet.   Okay maybe that's a stretch...  Can anything that's garnished with gummy worms be legitimately called "adult?"

I served to to the boys, and waited for the verdict.  Granted the cookies are not as dark as Oreos; however, they both agreed that my homemade cake looks more realistic, which is important where dirt is concerned.  After the third helping it was clear that the latest version hit the mark.  In fact, even I loved it!  And that's saying a lot!

This recipe may look daunting, but I promise if you take it in steps, it's easy.  The cookies and custard can be made in advance and then it's just a matter of assembling the cake a few hours before serving.