Dirty Work: Berry Cake with Thyme

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

-Pretty and picked by someone else.-

My parents did their best to garden and there were plenty of success stories that demonstrated their dedication. Aloe vera, pink thorn, roses of every saturated hue, and ice plant all grew in abundance in colorfully tiled terra cotta pots with relative ease. Looking at the front patio you would imagine my parents to have green thumbs attached to greener hands to match that desginer's eye they both seemed to share. Then again, growing plants native to Southern California's temperate climate was like shooting fish in a barrel with a bazooka. All we had to do was put the plant in some dirt and call it a day. We were guaranteed a lush and vibrant space to enjoy and entertain with.

Where they had difficulty, however, was with gardening food. (When it comes to difficulties, I'm not counting the dogs, who dug up the lawn and various flower beds with near a religious zealotry.)

A number of infant lemon trees were tortured to death with the utmost genteel concern for their well-being. Fed plenty of food, watered with precision, and ensured plenty of sun there was no practical reason for them to groan into a prolonged and probably agonizing death. However, year after year, all that was left sitting in a neatly stone-circled partitions on the back slope were their brittle skeletons crackling their bones against each other in the wind.

The tomatoes had even less success. Like obstinate little two years old they never did what they were told. They would remain stout and stubbornly die out of protest. Every year mom and dad fruitlessly did their best to cajole, bribe, and encourage those tomato plants to do better as if they were derelict family members who you knew, no matter what, were going to disappoint you.

Eventually, dad discovered the Early Girl variety of tomato. Once planted in the Orange County climate they grew voraciously and took over the beds like angry despots. Soon the new problem became fat, green tomato worms who ravenously gorged themselves on the leaves and fruits. My dad, frustrated at his inability to stop them and, I would guess, somewhat at his aging eyesight and therefore his inability to find them tasked my brother and I to hunt them down. Every sunny Saturday we would tenderly flush through the growth turning over every leaf searching for their bulging, yet well camouflaged, bodies. When we we found one we would place it on the red brick wall and violently crush it with a cinder block. Sometimes there were so many tomato worms that we would be able to paint nearly a quarter of the wall's top surface in a fine snot-colored paste.

-And if I found the bugs on this cake I would punish them just the same.-

It was cruel, but we were young boys doing what young boys did. Had it not been for killing of bugs the task would have been even more achingly boring and tiresome. I rarely spent my time outdoors, and while my brother seemed to inure himself to these menial bug hunts I found them insufferable.

I was not an outdoorsy child. However, this was not for the lack of my parents efforts. Years of month-long camping excursions and more than a few doomed hikes with one of the most rugged and unlucky Boy Scout troops to have ever been formed did nothing to change my attitude and demeanor. Rains followed our troop hikes like hungry cats mewling for a meal and more than once did someone misread the map resulting in drudging marches through some unheard of bog in the middle of the desert. I can't even tell you how many times I stepped into quicksand or fell into a swamp or had to chase away rattlesnakes. I was sure that my parents' desire to build character in me would result in my unfortunate and early demise. I often pictured the headlines, "Boy Scout Killed in Camp Tomahawk Throw. Parents Weep." or something equally dramatic, and hiked the rest of the way wondering who would attend my funeral and what they would say.

So, to the best of my ability, I avoided helping my parents garden. This worked out for everyone. I didn't bitch and moan and my parents didn't have to listen to me bitch and moan. It was the soil turnover days, however, I made a special effort to keep away my parents. Especially, dad.

Total avoidance was unlikely as eventually my mother would find me hiding under my bed reading before shooing me outside of the house and confiscating anything with written text on it. An action that, to me, seemed awfully irresponsible of a school teacher. As I was left to my own devices - usually, wondering how she kept her teaching license - I would see my dad with a shovel in his hands turning fresh compost and soil into the beds. The bone white concrete patio around him would be sullen with a coarse crumble of heady soil.

-I think he may have been trying to plant blueberries once or twice. Never. Saw. One.-

I hated the smell of the dirt. When I got close to it my nose and face immediately scrunched in on itself as if it were folding itself into an origami bird. The odor was too unlike the porcelain world I generally tried to remain a part of, one that smelled of lemon pledge and and baked scalloped potatoes from a box, and I found it to be musky and offensive.

Eventually dad would come across a potato bug crawling in the dirt, or as he referred to them, "God's ugliest fuckers," and he would toss it over his head in hopes that it would land in the pool with a satisfying splunk. I would sit there at the edge of the water watching them helplessly wriggle to the bottom where the would settle and, moments later, go motionless.

Admittedly, I enjoyed watching them die. After all, dad was right. They were God's ugliest fuckers. Why God would even create them I had no idea. Mom an dad seemed to agree that they did the world no good and that all they did was destroy their plants. I certainly never saw any birds eat them, though I guess birds found them as appetizing as I did. They seemed to serve no propose in the grand scheme of things so I morbidly cheered on the over-chlorinated death of each potato bug as they drowned.

What I hated about being outside with dad on turnover days, though, was that when I was around he found it far more entertaining to toss them at me. He would slyly pretend to look at his work making show with his spade until I looked away and busied myself upsetting a trail of ants or trying to make a whistle out of a stem of grass. Then once I was no longer preoccupied with cataloguing his movements like a type-A dance instructor (because, honestly, how long can a twelve year old with ADD fixate on a single activity?) he would toss the potato bug across the yard like a beanbag toy and let it bop me on the head.

-As a kid I did, however, manage to grow strawberries in a strawberry pot. Child Garrett: 1. Bug Tossing Father: 0.-

Looking down I would see the poor thing squirming on the ground in panic. Knowing what happened, even realizing it wasn't even on me, I would scream and freak out like a crack-addled six year old girl. I danced and yelped, swatting my entire body as if someone has covered me with spiderweb and lit it on fire.

I assume this both upset and entertained him. He knew I was never going to grow up to be a sports star in high school, or a clinical psychologist like he was, or powerful businessman like his father like he so wanted. I was too cerebral in nature and effeminate in my mannerisms, but he was proud to have at least tempered that with plenty of hikes, pinewood derby competitions, and outings blasting shotguns and killing scores of clay pigeons. Still, had I been rougher, there was no way he would have been able to laugh at my falsetto reaction.

His sense of humor remains a mystery to me. What made him laugh was often irreverent and somewhat nebulous. His mustachioed grin and eyes squeezed shut, his laugh was light and short like my own. Yet I never could seem to understand how to elicit it. It was a dartboard and all I could do was throw, though over the years my aim has improved greatly.

But at me he would laugh at his comic use of insects and sons. I would curse him out as well as a child who didn't know how to swear (at the time I didn't know that fuck was a cuss word, just an adjective for potato bugs) before grabbing it between by thumb and pointer finger and pitifully lobbing it at him. The poor thing would land on the hard concrete and squirm a bit in an effort to recover before dad kicked him into the pool along with the rest of his doomed kin.

-Look at the cake. Do not think about gross potato bugs. Only cake.-

These days, I garden myself. In fact, I enjoy it. Even better is that I have yet to encounter a single potato bug in Northern California. (And, If I eventually do, I will smite it with the wrath of a thousand angry gods since they can't fight back like a preying mantis.)

Just the other day was our turnover day. It seems odd, nearly upsetting, that I look forward to something that I used to take great pains to avoid. Then again, I seem to have more luck with my vegetables than my parents did so the incentive is more palpable. Upon reflecting it becomes even stranger still just how much my personality has changed since I was a kid, yet at the same time its core has probably become only more stubbornly resistant and to some degree or another will always remain the facetious, curious, slightly egotistic, introverted child I was.

Though I apprciate the changes. It's allotted me the chance to grow tomatillos and eat salsa verde for months and given me an appreciation for cake. As a kid, I wasn't a big cake fan. My parents, rightly so, wondered what was wrong with me. I do too.

This particular cake is pretty darn easy and a fragrant way to break up your little gardening party. It's styled in a simple-cobbler, spoon-bread sort of way and loaded with thyme. Thyme, if you haven't tried it in sweets before, is fabulous with fruit. I by no means exaggerate when I call it a life changing combination either, as it was a thyme, peach, and blueberry cake the persuaded me to first try my hand at baking. I find that this cake is better than that one. It takes no time to throw together, either. Just pop it in the oven, attend to your roses or baby tomato plants, and when the oven timer dings you can stomp the mud off your boots and spoon some of it on to a plate. A healthy pour of heavy cream or eager scoop of vanilla ice cream won't do you any wrong either.

Then go, sit, and enjoy the cake and whatever dirty work that you earned it with. Just avoid the potato bugs.

Berry Cake with Thyme
Serves 6-8
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman

1 stick butter, melted
1 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 t salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup blueberries
1 cup strawberries, quartered

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly butter a large ceramic baking dish. Use something bigger than a 9x9 baking dish. If that's all you have then increase the cooking time. However, bigger is better. I used an 11-inch pyrex casserole dish.

2. Melt the butter and set aside to cool. In a separate bowl whisk together 1 cup of sugar along with the flour, salt, baking powder, and thyme. Whisk in the milk and vanilla extract. Pour in the butter and whisk until incorporated. Pour the batter into the baking dish. Add the fruit. You may have to poke some of it down to fit it all. Evenly sprinkle on the surface the additional 2 tablespoons of sugar.

3. Bake at 350F for an hour. The top should be dark golden. Cool for ten minutes on a wire rack. Serve hot, warm, or cold. Preferably with ice cream.


  1. Thyme and berries is an absolute favorite. I had a berry cocktail with thyme muddled in a few years ago and fell head over heels. Will have to give this cake a try when berries appear over in NYC.

  2. This looks fabulous, I can't wait to make it. Quick question - when do you add the butter?

  3. Can't wait to try this one. Do you think finding yourself a young Boy Scout in a bog in the muddle of a dessert is why you are such a dessert maven? I know, typo. But hilarious none the less.

  4. I am so jealous you have berries! I dream of fresh fruit.

  5. burnttoast: Whoops! Thanks for catching that! =D

  6. You need to make this for bookclub!

  7. This looks yummy, will have to try as soon as we have berries...what do you think about rhubarb with strawberries? Yolande

  8. Inkeepers Daughter: Why, of course! =)

  9. I made this tonight. It was SOOOO good. Thank you for the recipe. YUM.

  10. This is yummy cake. My weakness is really cake especially fruit cake berries cake. Thanks for the recipe.

  11. I have been trying very hard not to make this until we have guests. I may be pregnant, but my husband and I do NOT need a whole cake to ourselves!


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