It’s finally summer and we are living outside. The trees have unfurled their leaves and our yard is shady, filled with bikes left to fall in their spot as the kids eagerly run off to play. This particular warm evening finds us standing outside talking to another family who has happened by. Their kids run with ours, barefoot on the grass, between the houses, and down the drive. Half the kids hide while the other half seek, allowing us to string a few sentences together uninterrupted. We are having an actual adult conversation--likely riddled with curse words, giddy as we are with our freedom--when our Rabbi and his wife stroll by. He delivers the news that the man who used to live in our home has passed away.
Ed lived in this house for 43 years. Here, he raised his own family with his wife Elise. Their three children as well as multiple grandchildren grew here, all living under this roof at various times, a place for whomever needed to stay. Several family members have visited in the three years since we moved in and their stories allow me to imagine what their life here was like. I can see Elise using bleach to scrub the wood counters clean every morning; I know how the small attic room that is my office must have looked when in a fit of teen angst, one son painted it all black; I can conjure Ed using his knowledge of commercial HVAC to cobble together the complex cooling and heating system that leaves our home with both radiator and forced-air components controlled by no fewer than six thermostats (some overriding others, some controlling a single room). This home has been lived in.
In our house search, my husband and I toured every available place in Glencoe and this was the only one we visited a second time. By chance, Ed and Elise were home when we came back. Ed was an artist and the walls were crammed with his work, lending the place a homey, college-professor feel. I connected with him right away and instead of taking a closer look at the house, ended up talking to him about when he first saw the home and how his wife’s happy expression caused him to make a deal on a handshake before even walking through it. When I got home I wrote him a letter, followed by a bid.
Ed and Elise seemed as concerned with our move as they did their own. They offered to leave items they thought our kids might like such as wooden blocks and a small rocking chair their own daughter had used. They left us new bars of soap and towels so that we didn’t have to hunt for our bathroom box first. And in an old-fashioned bit of welcoming chivalry, Ed penned a letter to the block announcing our arrival.
I have some experience with moving. In fact, I’m an expert. In my first 18 years, I moved 14 times. I can tell you how many hours of sleep a child will get before her first day at a new school (none) and which box she’ll unpack first (her books, because she hasn’t met anyone to play with yet).
As an adult, I vowed that I didn’t want my own kids’ things continually paired down to what could fit into a U-Haul; my husband and I decided that our move to Glencoe would be the last. Our decision was affirmed each passing day in our new neighborhood. Welcomes arrived in all forms: homemade cookies and cupcakes, bottles of wine, a book about the town’s history, cards bearing cell phone numbers and the words “call if you need anything.”
Ed took me to lunch at his favorite deli (Big Apple) and then on to the place that made the “best” hamantaschen cookies (Leonard’s Bakery) and even drove me to the butcher (Elegance in Meat) where he suggested I order my Passover brisket. At his art studio, he urged me to pick something just for me. In the midst of unpacking and new school registrations, it was a treat to do something that wasn’t for others. I spent a lot of time comparing watercolors to oils and torsos to landscapes before picking a painting that felt like me on my best days, the me I want to be more often--not simply daughter, mother, or wife, but a woman. It hangs on my living room mantel now.
We aren’t the first family to living in this home and we won’t be the last. Other children will have their first steps here and their special meals celebrating a ballet recital or college acceptance. The thing I love about old homes is the history that has already taken place between their walls; the sense that our lives here represent just a moment in time and that it all just keeps going. Ed understood this and was genuinely happy to see another young family move into his home.
When I heard of his passing, I knew I wanted to honor him in some way. And how do we pay tribute to those who are gone? By doing something nice for the people they loved who are left behind. For me, that means baking. The forethought, time spent in preparation and execution, as well as the delicious result is one of the clearest ways I know to show I care.
I choose to make Elise a cake I’ve seen made dozens of times. My mother-in-law prepares this cake for every birth, birthday and bereavement. The recipe is tattered and vanilla-stained. It’s a chardonnay cake--basically a yellow bundt cake with a little wine in it that, once baked, has a wine, sugar, and butter mixture poured over the top. Recipients of the cake often fight over the “mushy” parts where the topping has really soaked in its boozy sweetness.
The idea of a round cake--rather than brownies or some other bar treat--appeals to me as a symbol of the cycle of life. And wine is a mainstay in ceremonies affirming life; in fact, our son got so drunk on it at his bris that he hiccuped for fifteen minutes with a big, dumb smile on his face (better than the painful alternative of realizing what had just happened).
My mother-in-law can make a chardonnay cake with one hand while preparing a Thanksgiving turkey with the other and having a conversation with you about a trip she just took. I figure if she can do it, I can too. It seems easy. After all there’s no fussy frosting and no layers to stack. I discover that it’s kind of like watching your parents drive when you’re a kid. Driving looks simple. What you don’t get yet are the nuances like accelerating in a turn to hold it tight or the right moment to reverse the wheel while parallel parking. It takes time to be good at it.
I gather my ingredients and notice that we happen to have an uncorked chardonnay in the fridge. I don’t know when it’s from and am not even sure it’s still good. My wine “test” looks something like this: uncork, bring bottle to lips, swig. It’s not pretty. But it’s quick and doesn’t leave dirty glasses.
Glencoe is laid out in a pretty tight grid and my kitchen window happens to look across my driveway into my neighbor’s kitchen window. It’s close. Really close. Like “gosh that pink sweater that Sally’s wearing today looks really nice” close. This means that I have been unwittingly witnessed guzzling wine directly from a bottle. Twice. Once on a Sunday morning (hey, I was cleaning out the fridge).
My test finds this bottle bad so I open a new one and start the cake. I work fast because Ed and Elise’s son is stopping by to pick up mail and I plan to give him the cake to deliver back to her. My timing is off because the cake goes into the oven just as the doorbell rings. Their son promises to stop by the next day when he’s back in Glencoe to retrieve the cake. He doesn’t.
The cake sits for three days on my counter, waiting, sinking. I finally give up and cut into it, eager for a slice. I offer my husband what I have now deemed “dead man’s cake” (humor is my favorite coping mechanism). The cake is bland, dense, and seemingly undercooked. My husband jokes that it’s “lifeless.” We are full of off-color puns.
In my haste, I had taken shortcuts by not adding the eggs one at a time, not beating for a full six minutes, and eyeballing for doneness. It turns out that with baking I’m still in the learner’s permit stage; my next chardonnay cake is best made with adult supervision. I throw the cake away.
A few days later the cake is pulled from the outside bin by animals then left--intact--on the ground. It bears mentioning that last fall we decorated our door with dried Indian corn cobs only to find them picked clean the next day. The squirrels, racoons, and rabbits would rather eat old, dusty corn than my cake. So while I regret not being able to show Elise my sorrow with a baked good, I am grateful that her mourning wasn’t compounded by the awful cake I turned out. Perhaps the best way to show my affection for Ed isn’t my baking after all, it’s with my words: he’ll be missed.
Upon his death, Ed asked that a scholarship be created to support and nurture young people who are following their passion for art of all forms. His desire to help those young people who were less fortunate or who did not have the family structure to support their dreams was a strong and abiding goal for the last several years of his life, and one which his family is committed to fulfilling. His idea was to sell his remaining artwork to fund the scholarship.
Art Sale benefitting the Ed Rosen Memorial Scholarship For Students of the Arts
Saturday, June 23rd 10am to 5 pm
Sunday, June 24th 12pm to 5 pm
Join us for a retrospective look at Ed Rosen’s Art through the years and many genres: Abstract, figurative, florals and more.
Located at 400 Anthony Trail in Northbrook, off Pfingsten and between Dundee and Lake Cook.
Gail’s Chardonnay Cake (delicious when not made by me)
1 cup (2 sticks) sweet butter, cut up
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
3 cups cake flour
1 pkg instant vanilla pudding (3.5 ounces)
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup chardonnay
1 tsp vanilla extract
Baker’s Joy spray or Pam with Flour
9” bundt pan
Preheat oven to 350. Spray pan with Baker’s Joy or Pam. Cream butter and sugar in a mixer. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each. Leave in the mixer. Sift together remaining dry ingredients (cake flour, vanilla pudding, baking powder) in a bowl. In another bowl or large measuring cup, add all wet ingredients (wine, milk, vanilla). Alternate adding dry and wet ingredients to the mixer (beating after each addition). Beat at medium speed for 6 minutes after all ingredients have been added; then pour into bundt pan. Cook for 50 minutes.
5 minutes BEFORE you take the cake from the oven, make the following...
1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup wine
Mix the butter, sugar, and cold water (NO WINE YET) in a small saucepan over low heat and let it come to a boil. Take the saucepan off heat and pour in the wine.
Remove cake from oven and slowly pour topping over cake while hot. Let it soak in (be patient). Turn cake onto a plate and turn back onto dish for serving. Enjoy!