Sunday, May 20, 2012

Blue Milk for a Curly-Haired Girl, and Strawberry Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Muffins



One hot and humid summer day in South Carolina, a little girl with curly braids, streaked blond from the sun, was playing with her Barbies on the brick porch in front of her house.  A garden hose at the top of the porch created a refreshing waterfall cascading down the steps into a plastic bowl (that's a swimming pool in Barbie world) so that the Barbies could splash around in the cool water.  Her Strawberry Shortcake doll got to play, too, the water bringing out the sweet, strawberry scent of her freckled skin and red hair.

The girl looked out across the yard where her older sister was playing with a friend by the dogwood tree in the corner, next to the ditch.  It was her favorite tree, except for maybe the one in the backyard with the rope swing, where she liked to sit under the shade of its flowering branches, read books, brush and braid her dolls' hair and snuggle with her cat, Oreo.  Sometimes Oreo would do naughty things like bring a dead rabbit or a bird home, and then she would purr and rub against the girl's ankles, wanting praise for her successful day of hunting.  Oreo couldn't understand why that made the girl cry.




She had already asked her sister if she could play with them, after all, they did everything together.  Shared a room with twin beds covered in gray and white cat bedspreads with matching curtains, whispered secrets under the covers when they were supposed to be asleep, designed clothes for their Barbies from scraps of fabric their mom gave them, convinced their little brother to let them dress him up in their baby clothes and brush his wavy brown hair.  Although, eventually he started getting impatient with the game of being their living doll, and the girl was forced to pay him a nickel in exchange for playing with his hair.  It got too expensive for her, so she gave up on the game.

They were both scared of the way their clothes looked hanging in the closet at night; for some reason there were no doors on the closet, and the clothes looked like whispy, white ghosts in the moonlight.  They were afraid of the oven light, glowing like a lone, red eye at the end of the hallway when they got up at night to go to the bathroom.  The hardwood floor was a danger zone, and they'd hop from the bed, to the braided rug, to the carpet in the hallway to avoid stepping on it.  And they shared a love of teasing their cousin during sleepovers by putting a rubber snake under her pillow.  But their favorite trick was pushing their twin beds together so the three of them could sleep together, then making their cousin take the middle so that she would fall in the crack between the mattresses.

And when the girl's older sister started kindergarten, she was broken-hearted at being left behind.  She didn't realize how thrilling it would be someday to have their bedroom to herself when her sister left for college, even though that thrill was shadowed by her sister's absence.




So on this particular day, she couldn't understand why, after asking to play with them, her sister told her, "No."  No reason given, no fight predicating the request, nothing she had done to annoy her.  Just no.

After watching them dejectedly from the porch for a few minutes, she wandered into the house, the air-conditioning hitting her face like a cool breeze, teasing the curly strands of hair clinging to her damp neck.  She moped around the front room, watching her mom sew seam after seam at her sewing desk.  Her mom was always sewing for her business, and the gentle whir of the machine, the snip of scissors on thread, silk and lace and cotton sliding across the desk and the hiss of steam escaping the iron were comforting sounds.  Comforting in their sameness.  Comforting in always knowing where to find her mom and in always knowing what she would be doing.

Sometimes she got to try the clothes on, too, if her mom was sewing for another little girl her age, so that she could make sure they would fit correctly.  And with the leftover pale blue satin fabric from one of her sewing jobs, her mom had made her a dress that made her feel like a princess with its lace-covered buttons and tiny puffed sleeves.

After she and her brother and sister were all in school, her mom got her nail technician license and started working part-time during the day, which was very upsetting to her, even though her mom still took them to school each morning and picked them up every afternoon.

"I want to know that you're home when I'm in school, doing mommy things!" she told her with a tremor in her voice.  "What if I need you and you're not there?"

She remembered the week when she had the chicken pox, how her mom had taken care of her, rubbing her itchy spots with Vitamin E oil, placing cool, damp washcloths on her feverish forehead and bringing her all the Cherry 7-Up and cinnamon toast she wanted, and thought melodramatically that from now on, she'd probably have to take care of herself.




Her mom looked up from her sewing, recognizing the pouty lower lip that the little girl had mastered so well.  The tears brimming under her eyelashes were real, though.

They went into the kitchen with its wood-paneled walls, and she sat down at the table while her mom got her a glass of cold milk.  She loved that kitchen, with its perfectly positioned counter that provided a great space for a fort between the counter and the back of the couch.  She loved that her mom didn't get impatient with blankets draped over that space and pillows and books strewn underneath.

Sometimes she got to help her mom mix up one of her favorite desserts, raisin spice cookie bars with cream cheese icing, although she needed a stool to reach the bowl.  Her little brother got his baths in the kitchen sink.  A few of the drawers and cupboard doors had yellow frowny-face stickers on them, which meant dangerous things like knives or cleaning supplies were inside, and they weren't to open those cupboards.  And on her first day of kindergarten, her mom gave her clues which led her to finding her new, pink and blue Smurfette lunchbox hidden inside one of the cupboards.




Her mom brought her the glass of milk with a straw, and she was surprised and excited to see that it was tinted with blue food coloring, an extra special touch.

"Why is it blue?" she asked.

"Blue milk for my blue little girl," her mom said.

And that made her smile.

Her sister and friend came inside, hot from playing outside and wanting something cold to drink.  "Wow, can we have blue milk, too?" they asked, as soon as they saw her glass.

"No," my mom told them.  "Today, that's just for Heather."




 ***

About the muffins...  sweet, juicy strawberries, tangy cream cheese filling, vanilla, creamy icing, half muffin and half cupcake...  do I really need to say anything more?  :)


Strawberry Vanilla Bean Cream Cheese Muffins
printable recipe

cream cheese filling:
  • 4 ounces low-fat cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla bean paste (or seeds of 1/2 a vanilla bean)
muffin batter:
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla bean paste (or seeds of 1/2 a vanilla bean)
  • 3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chopped strawberries
icing:
  • 4 ounces low-fat cream cheese, room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup powdered sugar


Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray a muffin pan with non-stick spray then line the pan with 12 paper liners.

In a small bowl, beat the cream cheese filling ingredients until smooth and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, oil, eggs, vanilla bean paste and buttermilk until well combined.  In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.  Gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, stirring just until combined.  Fold in the strawberries.

Fill the muffin cups 1/3 of the way full with the batter.  Spoon a dollop of the cream cheese filling into each, then cover with the rest of the batter.
Bake muffins for 18-22 minutes, until the top is golden and a toothpick comes out clean.  Cool muffins in the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes before icing.

Beat the icing ingredients until smooth, then spread on the tops of the muffins.  Top with a fresh strawberry slice.
Yields 12 large muffins.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen