On the morning of my fortieth birthday Julian, my five year old, ran in to the room and asked, "When are the Gathers getting here?" Children are so funny about secrets and surprises. Up until that moment both boys had been doing an okay job of keeping our friends visit a surprise, only allowing comments to leak out that I could ignore, or pretend did not mean anything more then how much we all missed our friends. But that comment was so blatant, spoken by a child who was having trouble keeping what he knew bottled inside, and needed an answer.
Turns out the answer was lunch time, our friends would be here at lunch time. The Gathers are friends who were forced to move away last summer for an Ear Nose and Throat Residency 3.5 hours away. They are a family with a close friend for each of us plus a bonus 2 year old. Malcolm, the 2 year old, is strong willed in a remarkably similar way to Julian. A lesson every day to his mother, Katherine, for ever marveling at Julian and my ability to cope. She made the mistake of commenting on it when she was still planning on having one more child.
I have always been hard to surprise, even before I had children to tell me out right. Lewis is often amazed and horrified at how little information I need to make accurate conclusions.
I have had 2 attempted surprise parties before in my life and I figured out both of them. There is often too much maneuvering to the time and destination. Both previous attempts involved outright arguing, one about when I would return from going out with another friend. My surprise 12th birthday party my friends asked if I could have a birthday party (my mother was very ill and I could not have one) who would I invite. When they argued with me about the guests for my fantasy party, I knew something was up.
As my friend Katherine tried to guide us to my husband's office to meet him for lunch my suspicions were aroused. So I quietly changed my shirt, grabbed my camera and stopped arguing about where we should eat. Then in case I doubted my own instincts, Sebastian turned to Julian as we left and said, "Don't worry, the party is at Daddy's office and there will be food there."
And there was food, wonderful food that Lewis had chosen with local caterers, all simple but delicious and fresh. There was also a room with some of my favorite people. At one point there was a row of children, whose families do not eat processed foods, happily drinking florescent orange gatorade. The only thing missing was cake, Lewis could not decide on a cake that would be right so he decided on none. So a few days later, I made my own. A strawberry shortcake made with a spongecake base instead of biscuits.
Strawberry shortcake was a specialty of my mom's, and in honor of my mother I used one of her spongecake recipes. I used the one where she rewrote the steps, whited out what she wrote and then rewrote the steps again. I am not sure this is the best sponge cake recipe ever, but I just love the audacity of the white out in my mother's cookbook, something I can not bring myself to do.
I did receive a true surprise in the end as Katherine and her children stayed in my tiny house with Sebastian and Julian while Lewis and I went to stay at their condo at Sugarbush. I have been pining for weeks for a chance to eat without anybody whining and sleep as late as I want without having to worry about anybody. So this gift was perfect, especially as I really missed my children as I tried to go to sleep in a building they were not in. I guess I am not one of those mothers who is destined to take a long vacation from her children.
Adapted from James Beard and my mother
4 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp all purpose flour
4 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups of sugar (divided use)
3/4 cups hot water
grated rind of 2 lemons
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
4 egg whites beaten until stiff, but not dry
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
Melt the butter slowly in a small saucepan over low heat. When the butter is melted whisk in the 2 Tbsp flour. Brush the flour/butter mixture on the insides of two 8 inch cake pans and set aside, not next to the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°.
Beat the egg yolks until thick and lemon colored (this is much easier with the best quality eggs, which I happily gather from my own chickens). While beating the eggs slowly add 1 cup of sugar. Mix in the hot water, lemon rind, lemon juice, salt and baking powder and the rest of the sugar.
James Beard says to fold in the beaten egg whites. Once the egg whites are thoroughly incorporated sift the flours over the batter and fold it in. My mom said to fold in the flour first and the egg whites second. I will leave the choice up to you.
Pour the batter into the two prepared cake pans and bake in the center of the oven for 20 - 25 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool completely in the pans on a cooling rack.
Organic strawberries (in season I will happily use local non organic strawberries that I know are not sprayed at all once the fruit is set).
Put the whipping cream in a bowl and whip using an electric beater, stand mixer or immersion blender to until soft peaks form. Remove the cakes from the pan by inverting on to a plate or cake stand. Spread the bottom layer heavily with whipped cream and cover with sliced strawberries. Spread the strawberries with more whipped cream and then place the top layer on the cake. Spread the top with more whipped cream and place sliced strawberries on top. Serve at once
Refrigerate any leftovers (Ha)