3.17.2012

the promise of summer


On a recent breezy afternoon, the boys and I were outside in the backyard. They were excited to be geared up in lightweight jackets and puddle stompers instead of arctic wear, and were sloshing about in the mud in the shady back corner, the one where we've given up trying to grow grass and have handed over to them and their digging activities. The mud was the kind that kids delight in the most, soft and slimy and deep. The kind that slowly pulls you in the longer you stand in one place, so that Wylie had to repeatedly call for help after finding his feet firmly suctioned into the goo, unable to move.

Mud season.

Mud season is well-known in Maine. In fact, many people will refer to it as an official season, dropping "spring" from the lineup in favor of this much more accurate moniker. There are still enough dirt roads in the state that almost everyone has a story to tell about that time their car got stuck in 8 inches of muck, or was sliding precariously around the road, the deep ruts seeming to take over navigation responsibilities, pulling the car this way and that with no regard for such things as lanes. Some of us have many, many of those stories.

And even if your street is paved, the ground around it is not, and yards all over the state become giant, oozing, ultra-saturated mudflats. It's infuriating if you're an adult, exhilarating if you're a child. To step out onto what looks like a piece of solid ground, covered with a thick, matted coat of last year's lawn, only to have the earth move under you and your foot sink in, with a bit of a sideways slide as your weight shifts to balance you against the unexpected motion, means that walking suddenly becomes a much more deliberate, mindful act, as you choose each step carefully, looking in vain for the path of most resistance as you try to make the short trip from your front door around the corner to the picket fence gate in the backyard. To the kids, the ground has never been more thrilling.

Each mud season always feels more epic than the last, but this year's, based on length alone, is already one for the record books. We've been suffering through it since January, thanks to the continent's bizarrely mild winter and early spring. It hasn't been a constant presence for three months, since we've had enough cold snaps to make it more of a freeze/thaw/freeze/thaw cycle, but the deep ruts and wide patches of sod churned up by the dog's paws each time she chases a squirrel or cat across the yard are enough to make me wonder if we will even have a lawn come summertime. Last summer, our eighth in this house, Josh's eighth of deliberate, intense efforts to get a lawn to grow, was the first time our backyard looked truly filled in with green, and was soft enough and thick enough to feel good under bare feet. But now? I fear our hard-won turf, smashed and broken and shredded as it is, will be just another victim of the Mud Season of 2012.


There will be one patch of color out there, however, if only briefly. As I was gingerly picking my way along the fence line, looking for higher ground, I saw little spikes poking out of the ground. Bright green, sliding out of white sheaths, a shocking shot of newness against the drab of the defeated earth.

The crocuses are back.

Some previous occupant of our house must have optimistically planted them, along with some equally tenacious tulips, before realizing that our low-lying land can't sustain much in the way of traditional landscaping. And every year they emerge, to cradle the early honeybees that so entrance my boys, basking in the brief window of warming sunlight before the towering maples overhead leaf-out and swathe our yard in thick shade for another season.


Seeing those emerging shoots catapulted me right through spring and into summer, and for just a moment I could imagine a sun warm enough to make my hair hot to the touch, and a breeze that was refreshing instead of being something to bundle up against. After so much mud, and so much still to come, I could feel the promise of summer.

I've always thought that Mainers crave the warm seasons so intensely because winter lasts so long, and is so frigid and snowy white. And most years, I think it's true. But this winter? We haven't had much in the way of white stuff on the ground, and the typical deep freeze has been largely absent, as well. But still, everyone I know has reached their own personal breaking point and is ready for spring, right now. So I've been thinking that maybe it's not so much winter that puts a damper on our spirits (because snow we can deal with, even enjoy), but the knowledge that even after winter is exhausted we still have mud season to slop through before we can again feel good about our surroundings.

And so there I was, mud practically up to my ankles, craving summer. As is so often the case with me, my craving quickly manifested itself through what I felt like eating. Fresh salads, crisp and crunchy and lively in my mouth, anything grilled and smoky that suggested it was cooked outside, and swollen berries that popped with tart sweetness. And I wanted to eat it all outside, in the newly-returned early evening light.

The thing is, it's not summer, nor even really spring yet. The only fresh produce available is of the imported, grocery store variety, mostly bland and insipid compared to the local specimens that will be arriving in a couple of  months. The ends of even the most unseasonably warm days are still cool enough that they leave my fingers cramped from the chill, shoulders hunched as I hustle the boys and their cold-induced crankiness inside. I don't want to eat dinner out there.

But the lovely, if bittersweet, consequence of 21st century agricultural practices and commerce routes means that if I need a completely impractical, unseasonal (and unfortunately probably fairly unsustainable) fruit fix in mid-March, I can have it. Immediately, in fact. I bought raspberries on a whim on my next shopping trip, and Wylie and I could barely wait until we were past the automatic doors before popping a few into our mouths. Such a deep, magenta concentration of flavor in a soft, yielding bundle of velvety flesh, pushing a rush of childhood memories to the forefront of my mind. It felt like the cruelest thing I'd done in a long time, not letting Wylie eat the entire pint right then. But I had plans for those berries, something that came to me in the split second after I decided that I needed to buy them.


Raspberry bars. But not the raspberry bars of my youth, where the "raspberry" is in fact a sticky, tacky raspberry jam baked onto a crust. I wanted my bars to feature raspberries, in all their squishy, intensely tart, baked glory. And I wanted a very tender crust, like the butteriest of shortbreads, and a crumble on top that furthered my warm-weather yearnings with notes of tropical coconut.

I love it when my mind latches onto an idea, and then it turns out that the execution of it is painless, easy even. Because easy these bars are, and fortunately exactly what I needed to give me a quick shot of the flavors of summer, especially since a day later a fast-moving system plowed through and left us with a dusting of snow that hung around for a day before finally giving up the ghost. I try to keep in mind my carbon footprint when I eat, and raspberries from Mexico, even organic ones, don't usually make the cut of what I'll allow myself to buy. But sometimes, the reminder that berries can be had year-round is much appreciated when one is in the throes of mud season. Sometimes, I have no problem at all making an exception.



Coconut Raspberry Bars
Yields one 9x13 pan

Crust
146 grams Tara's all-purpose gluten-free flour
146 grams almond flour
¾ teaspoon psyllium husk powder
170 grams unsalted butter, room temperature
75 grams granulated sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt

Topping
100 grams certified gluten-free rolled oats
60 grams light brown sugar
50 grams unsweetened shredded coconut
15 grams Tara's all-purpose gluten-free flour
80 grams unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces
1 pint (about 120 grams) fresh raspberries

Make the crust:
Butter a 9x13 baking pan and line it with parchment, allowing enough parchment to hand over two sides of the pan (this will help you remove the bars later).

Whisk together the gluten-free flour, almond flour, and psyllium husk powder in a mixing bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of a fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla and salt and mix well, then add the flour mixture and mix until thoroughly blended. Press and spread the dough into the prepared pan (it will be very sticky; an offset spatula is a good tool to use here). Chill the dough for 1 hour, or until firm.

Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Prick the crust all over with a fork and bake it for 45 minutes, or until it turns lightly golden brown. Cool to room temperature. (Keep the oven on, if yours is like mine and takes a long time to preheat. Otherwise, go ahead and turn it off for a while.)

Make the topping:
In a mixing bowl, combine the oats, coconut, brown sugar and gluten-free flour. Using your fingers, blend in the butter pieces until the topping consists of soft crumbles, with no large pieces of butter visible, and all the oats and coconut incorporated.

Preheat the oven to 325ºF if it's not already on.

Arrange the raspberries over the cooled crust and spread the topping over them. Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until the crumble topping has turned golden brown. Cool to room temperature.

The bars may be cut from the baking pan, or you can use the overhanging parchment as handles, and life the whole bar out of the pan and onto a board. Either way, the bars will be crumbly and tender, in a deliciously butter-induced way. Bars keep, wrapped airtight and at room temperature, for up to 4 days.

Special thanks to Driscoll's® and The Baddish Group, for sending me coupons for the berries in this dish. I was not compensated for this post, and the recipe and opinions herein are my own.

4 comments:

  1. I think our backyard has it's own mud season happening right now! These bars look so yummy I can't wait to make them.

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    Replies
    1. Oh, I hope your yard is drying up! We had a couple days of hot, dry weather that we loved, but now it's raining again. Which, I suppose, I should look at as preferable to drought. ;)

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  2. Great photography on your Blog! Do you really bake bottom crust for a total of 1 1/2 hours?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Yes, the crust really does get baked for that long. It starts out very moist and soft, more of a batter really, and when it's done it's a buttery, crumbly, shortbread-type cookie crust. Delicious!

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