I'm not the biggest fan of banana cake, or even bananas in general. I'm actually pretty fussy about them, especially when they're used as a baking ingredient - the flavor balance just doesn't seem to work very well most of the time (and don't even get me started on banana flavored candy - blech!). But when we suddenly found ourselves with a bunch of rather overripe bananas in the fruit bowl about a month ago, I gathered up my courage and went online to find a recipe for banana cake.
And it was heaven. In fact, it was SO good that I decided to forgo the traditional goodies and made it again for Christmas.
I'd post pictures of the entire cake, but...um...this is the last piece. Whoops. I'll quickly distract you from my appalling gluttony by posting the recipe:
Ingredients 3/4 cup butter 2 1/8 cups white sugar 3 eggs 2 teaspoons vanilla extract 3 cups all-purpose flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 cups buttermilk 2 teaspoons lemon juice 1 1/2 cups mashed bananas (this is about 3-4 medium sized bananas) Note: I normally prefer walnuts but this recipe is so good as is that I didn't even notice they were missing until my mother asked me if they were an ingredient - go ahead and toss some in, if that's your thing
Instructions Grease and flour a 9x13 inch pan, then preheat oven to 275 degrees F (135 degrees C). No, that's not a typo. Yes, it's unusually low - just go with me on this one.
In a small bowl, mix mashed bananas with lemon juice, set aside. In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream 3/4 cup butter and 2 1/8 cups sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in 2 teaspoons vanilla. Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the buttermilk. Stir in banana mixture. Pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from oven and place directly into the freezer for 45 minutes. This will make the cake very moist. (I KNOW this is very unorthodox, and I'd never heard of it before this recipe, but I SWEAR that the slow cooking time at a low temp + freezer = the most incredibly delicious banana cake you will ever eat.)
After the freezer time is up, turn the cake out onto a rack to finish cooling.
Frosting instructions Beat softened butter and cream cheese until well blended. Add powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat until creamy. Spread on cooled cake. Gorge yourself on the deliciousness.
IMPORTANT Here's the weird thing about this recipe: the first time, I followed the instructions precisely and the cake was done after one hour. The second time I followed it just as precisely and it took TWO HOURS to cook. Same recipe, same ingredients, same quantity, same temperature (and yes the oven was preheated both times), but for some reason it took double the length of time during my second attempt. I have no idea why this happened, but the end result was still perfectly moist and delicious. Go figure. Anyway, the point is: if this happens to you, don't freak out. Just let it keep baking until it's done. The low temperature seems to prevent it from getting burnt or overdone even if it needs an entire extra hour in the oven.
Christmas Down Under Wanna celebrate the holidays like an Aussie? Read on!
Decor: In my highly unscientific opinion, the divide between real and artificial trees seems to be mostly regional. In high density areas like Sydney and Melbourne there are a few Christmas tree nurseries, so families in those areas seem to buy more real trees - but for the most part, the rest of the country goes for fake, since there simply isn't the population (or the water) to support the tree farms that are overseas. The rest of the decorating is more or less the same as in the USA: Santas, holly, wreaths, tinsel, lights, and oddly, business like to put up those big plastic snowflakes (keep in mind: it's summer). Go figure.
Food: This is the real area of difference. Since it's summer, cool foods are on the menu - cold ham, prawns (no, they don't call them shrimp), salads, White Christmas (which I regard as one of the most foul desserts ever invented and loathe with every ounce of my being), pavlova (ditto), Christmas cake (aka fruitcake) and a traditional boiled pudding with brandy custard. Cold sliced turkey with cranberry sauce is also gaining in popularity with the younger generations - bet you never thought turkey could be trendy, did you? And since this is Australia, of course there is lots and lots - and lots - of booze!
Activities: It's pretty much the same the world over. Sit back, eat, unwrap gifts, avoid getting pinched on the ass by Weird Uncle Frank, eat some more, play with crackers, nap, observe as tensions rise between combative family members, have dessert, and nap some more. Since it's so hot, visits to the beach on Boxing Day are hugely popular (assuming you're not comatose from a hangover and watching cricket or yacht races on TV).
But really, all of this is optional. Except for the booze. That's an actual law.
I've already mentioned my love for Christmas carols - so now, with only two sleeps to go before the Big Day, it's time to admit my love of schmaltzy Christmas movies.
I love the classics like It's A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street (the original, of course), TheGrinch Who Stole Christmas, and more recent movies such as The Muppet Christmas Carol (best.Dickens.ever), Love Actually and Die Hard (what? it's set during Christmas!). But this is my all time favorite:
It just has so many wonderful lines! How could anyone not love this movie?
Mr. Parker: What is the name of the Lone Ranger's nephew's horse? Mother: Ah... Victor! His name is Victor. Mr. Parker: How did you know that? Mother: Everybody knows that!
Ralphie: Oooh fuuuuuuudge! Ralphie as Adult:[narrating] Only I didn't say "Fudge." I said THE word. The big one. The queen-mother of dirty words. The "F-dash-dash-dash" word! .... Mother: All right. Now, are you ready to tell me where you heard that word? Ralphie as Adult: [narrating] Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.
Mr. Parker (reading a word on the lamp box): Ahh..."fra-GEE-lay." That must be Italian! Mother: No honey...I think that says "fragile."
Ralphie: I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time. Just about everyone at one point or another: You'll shoot your eye out, kid!
But the narrator gets all the best lines:
"Downtown Hohman was prepared for it's yearly bacchanalia of peace on earth and good will to men."
"Some men are Baptists, others Catholics. My father was an Oldsmobile man."
[diving into the Christmas gifts] "We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice."
"In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan."
"Every kid, at the back of his mind, vaguely but insistently, believes that he will be struck blind before his 21st birthday. And then they'll be sorry."
"My old man's spare tires were only actually tires in the academic sense. They were round and had once been made of rubber."
* * * * *
Seriously, how often do you hear the word "bacchanalia" in a Christmas movie? (Or any movie, for that matter.) Love it!
I saw something shocking today, right in my own backyard. Take a look:
Umm...ignore the bare patches. We're not very good gardeners.Or lawners. Whatever the term is.
A little closer...
Also excuse the patchy blurriness. I took these photos through a wet window.
A little closer...
Can you see it? Those little white balls?
Still not sure?
Ben during his one and only time as a hand model.
That is HAIL.
This may not come as a big shock to anyone currently trudging through seven feet of snow in the USA, but you have to understand: this is Australia. It's late spring/early summer here. We've had our air conditioner running for the last week. It's not very thick or heavy, but hail???
I know that the strange weather is doubtless due to all kinds of freakish environmental problems, but I'm secretly kind of thrilled with it - one of the hardest parts of celebrating Christmas here is that it just doesn't feel like Christmas because of the hot weather (although oddly, stores still decorate with fake snowflakes). I also know that a white Christmas is beyond hope, but this was cool - and I'm feeling pretty happy about the holidays now!
Ben's parents are traveling interstate for Christmas, leaving Ben and I as the First Family In Charge of Dogsitting. Following an unfortunate cat attack episode, their Jack Russells are no longer welcome in our home, but we still volunteer to house their cattle dog from time to time.
This venerable gentleman is Bill, Ben's beloved childhood buddy:
Mmm, vintagey. I love Photoshop, don't you?
How I managed to get photos of him looking happy I shall never know. Bill is a rather crotchety old fellow - most of the time you get the impression that he's about to yell at you to get off his lawn and then start grumbling about how kids these days have no manners before suddenly collapsing into a spontaneous nap.
Look at that profile. They just don't make 'em like that anymore. Damn whippersnappers these days. Hmph. (And yes, that IS a Christmas stocking hung off the TV stand in the background. We don't have a mantle.)
Bill also happened to be staying with us when Korben the Wonderdog first entered our lives, much to the old boy's disgust. Last thing this pooch wanted in his twilight years was a obnoxious, hyperactive puppy who enjoyed attacking his tail:
Can you believe Korben was ever that small?
Speaking of Korben, I couldn't take a photo of Bill without taking one of Korbs as well - you know how it is:
Love me. Looooooooove meeee!
And then of course, Indy the Attention Whore, who wouldn't settle down until I took a picture of him as well:
My baby is...special.
*sigh* Damn kids these days. They have no respect for their elders.
P.S. This is completely unrelated, but Ben is currently watching Speed Racer. I guess it takes him back to his childhood or something, but this is hands down the worst film I've ever seen. And that's coming from someone who has watched Plan 9 from Outer Space (more than once). Yowza.
When Ben and I first moved in together (yes we were sinners and shacked up before marriage), we discovered when combining our worldly possessions that somehow neither one of us owned a can opener. No idea how this happened, since can openers are one of those things that are more or less a necessity of life, but since it was obviously a problem, we trotted out to buy one.
We didn't want a wussy can opener that would break after a few uses, so we bought the most badass looking piece of hardware we could find, all black and chrome. It looked a lot like this one - we figured that in a pinch, it could double as the jaws of life.
It died after it opened three cans. So we bought another one. Different brand, but a similarly hardcore design. This one made it past three cans - nearly to six, in fact - before it began to limp. You could still open a can, but you had to hold it at just the right angle, the can had to be a certain weight, and I strongly suspect the moon needed to be in Jupiter. A priest may have helped as well.
And then while moseying through the mall one day, I thought of my mother. For as long as I could remember, she had a very practical and nondescript can opener. It didn't look like much, but it had clearly lasted for years without breaking down. So I ducked into the nearest homegoods store and selected the plainest, simplest design I could find.
When I came out, I saw Ben returning from running an errand in the opposite direction. I pranced up to him and proudly displayed my prize, explaining my General Theory of Mom's Can Opener. He stared at me for a moment, then reached into his shopping bag and withdrew a nearly identical can opener...and then said that for as long as he could remember, his mother had used one like that.
We've had them for several years now, and they both still work like new. I guess Mother really does know best.
Here's a shameful secret: in three years of living together, Ben and I had never bought a lamp. Not one. No accent lamps, floor lamps, bedside lamps - nothing. A lot of it had to do with lack of space - in Darwin we lived in a truly tiny two bedroom apartment, so if we wanted a lamp, we probably would have had to throw out the couch. We still don't live in a mansion, but it's a bit larger than what we used to have, so we finally have room for a few more things. Like a coffee table. Or more than two seats in the living room. Or a lamp.
Operation: Lamplight was a bit slow to get off the ground, mostly due to my bewildered indecision. Did I want classic? Funky? A ceramic base? Metal? There are way too many options for someone like me, who likes to examine all options before making a decision. I never thought I'd go for a Tiffany style, since Early Grandma has never been my favorite decor...but after looking at roughly three bajillion lamps, I was continually drawn back to the colored glass. Our living room is decorated entirely in neutrals, and it's really rather bland overall: our couches are what the manufacturer calls "latte" (which is a fancy schmancy way of saying it's a pale camel color), the walls are a light beige, and the wooden furniture is all stained a deep brown. It really needed a punch of color, something in an interesting style to lighten the mood.
Of course we couldn't afford one of the gorgeous but ridiculously expensive lamps, so I had to find a cheaper design that didn't feel tacky or clunky. And then I found this little beauty:
If you think it does look tacky and clunky, that's OK. I adore it.
I can't tell you how much I love this lamp. It's fun and happy, adding some much needed color to the room - and it just fits. When you look at it, it just looks right with the rest of our furniture. Which is something of a small miracle considering that I'm quite possibly the worst interior decorator in the world.
Excuse the library books. I'm stockpiling reading material for over Christmas. Nerd alert, I know.
I was always drawn to graphic line compositions over chiaroscuro values in form, to the perpetual exasperation of my classically trained art professors. In other words, I think these poppies rock.
Happy colors! This makes me smile just looking at it.
One lamp down. Now we just have all the other rooms in the house to go!
I've mentioned before that Australia is relatively unpopulated for its size - between that supply-and-demand issue and the persistent drought conditions, the Christmas tree farms that are ubiquitous in the States are relatively uncommon here. There are a couple in the Sydney area but nothing local, so every year we go over the same debate: do we get a fake tree that looks good (at least from a distance) or go out the the woods and chop down a real one that looks like it has mange but gives off that delicious pine smell?
We've done both in the past:
An obvious fake, about a foot tall - it was literally the only tree left in Darwin on our first Christmas together. Like the patchy paint on the wall? We were in the middle of a renovation. You can also see Ben's Horatio Hornblower set, which he inexplicably loves and I find torturous in the extreme.
Last year was our first Christmas in Bathurst and this special little guy graced our living room, courtesy of Ben and an axe. Well "grace" might be an exaggeration.
This year we went real, but a bit taller. And, uh - skimpier:
The trunk is a foot and a half too long because we don't actually own an axe (we had to borrow one just to get this tree), so we were kind of stuck with it once we got home. And yes, that's what a real, un-manicured mongrel pine from the wild looks like, folks. I'm just keepin' it real.
Anyhoo, then it was time to bring out the decorations. For as long as I can remember, it's been a family tradition to watch King Kong while decorating - I know it's weird, but my dad is a huge fan and liked having something to distract him from the mess my sister and I made of the tree. Obviously this is a tradition that must be continued for the benefit of future generations.
I didn't realize this wasn't actually a Christmas movie until I was about 12. I may have been a little slow.
I won't torture you with a blow by blow account of the decorating, but I would like to say that I find it both peculiar and charming that Aussies and Brits call Christmas lights"fairy lights."
Ornaments are a big deal in my family. I know themed trees are all the rage, but there's no way I could ever do one - my ornaments are too varied, and most are too sentimental to leave off; my Nana used to give us kids an ornament every year, and my mom often sends new ones as part of my Christmas gift. I have so many wonderful memories associated with them - why on earth would I trade these in for generic baubles just so my tree is all one color or covered in teacups?
Possibly my favorite ornament. I just love the sweet, mischievous expression on this little lion's face.
Kind of an inside joke. This design first came out years and years ago - I think from Hallmark? - and my mother made a felt version out of it to decorate my childhood Christmas stocking (obviously, I'm the naughty one on the right) - since then I've been given it in all kinds of manifestations, from greeting cards to a popcorn tin to this ornament.
This sweetie was from my mother for the first Christmas I spent in Australia.
Of course he always goes near the top of the tree, in a tribute to King Kong.
Every year Ben and I each choose one special ornament to add to our collection. This tin angel was my selection this year. Actually, a lovely glass leaf was my first choice, but Ben snatched it off the shelf as his pick before I could grab it, the bully. I'm not showing a photo of the leaf out of protest.
We bought this sweet glass tortoise (turtle?) on our honeymoon in Hawaii back in May. I'm still amazed that it didn't fall victim to my half assed packing and smash into pieces on the way back.
This year I was also lucky enough to receive three awesome new ornaments from a friend in Canada:
Alyson didn't know this, but I very nearly chose a shoe themed ornament as my special pick this year - I'm so glad I didn't, because this one is much cuter! I love the look on the snowman's face: "Whoa. Dude. Where am I? That must have been one hell of a party..."
This is just so lovely - obviously, Alyson has great taste.
And so, after 104 minutes of Fay Wray's screaming, a Christmas tree was born:
Yes that is red tinsel. The rest of the year my home's decor is fairly understated, but I like my Christmas trees tarted up like a $3 hooker. Go figure.
No, it's not a great beauty. In fact, it's probably the scraggliest Christmas tree most of you have ever seen. It will never grace the pages of Better Homes and Gardens, and Martha Stewart would probably have a heart attack at the mere sight of it. Our tree isn't perfect, but it doesn't have to be - that's not what Christmas is about. Every time I look at those ornaments, I'm reminded of family and friends, of people I hold dear even though I'm half a planet away.