Say Cheese, Pumpkin.

I have never made a cheesecake. And after this shoot, I can now say: I still have never made a cheesecake but I have seen one made. Seen it right through my camera lens. I first met Isabelle at the Blue Nile (RIP). She was the friendly bartender and I was the loner at the bar, staring at my planner, eating nachos and replying to emails. She would make me a white Russian and keep me company from time to time. Since then, through various social media, I’ve come to know Isabelle as a true lover of kitchen-time…and insects, and the wonderful little trinkets of this weathered-world that go overlooked by the masses. I knew she was a perfect candidate for October’s Celebrating Life shoot.

Last Saturday, Isabelle invited me over on a chilly fall morning to help….er watch her do some baking in her adorable apartment in the heart of Harrisonburg. When she greeted me at the door it’s as if she was holding the smells of fall mornings hostage. A warm, comfortable wave of baked  pumpkin hugged my face and my cheeks rosied at the latch of the door lock behind me. What a great reflection of the soul a home is. I let myself get lost in her comforts before getting down to business. I mean, pumpkin cheesecake is surrrious business.

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"That's Logan's little pile."

“That’s Logan’s little pile.”

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As Isabelle measured and tossed ingredients into the mixing bowl, she told me about the glass jar of vanilla on the table. Her sister makes homemade vanilla each year as gifts for the family. When they are finished with the jar, they return it to her to refill. She also shared that she got most of her ingredients locally at the Friendly City Food Co-op which is walking distance from her place. She described that she loves to give her adored knickknacks away to spread joy because they’re just things that she’ll find joy in replacing on her next round of thrift shopping. Some of her things hold sentimental value…like the artwork on her fridge. And her cat. When I asked about her home and her style inspiration she put it simply: “it’s all about color and comfort.” And I guess she nailed it…because it all visually worked and I was dang comfortable. Isabelle loves baking and sharing the sweet goods of her efforts with local friends. On the evening of this particular day, she would head off to the Shendandoah Mountain Bike Festival to volunteer her time shuttling bikers and sharing her homemade cookies at the cookie table (<—every event needs one of those!). She talked about her dreams of opening a local, French-inspired bakery. She spoke kindly of her family and her parents and her life. I have only one wish for my time with Isabelle that day…and that is that I could’ve stayed just a bit longer. She is a joy to be around and her loving, positive outlook on her life is refreshing. And yeah, the cheesecake was dank!FriendlyCityLensPumpChs11FriendlyCityLensPumpChs12FriendlyCityLensPumpChs18FriendlyCityLensPumpChs20FriendlyCityLensPumpChs7FriendlyCityLensPumpChs22FriendlyCityLensPumpChs23FriendlyCityLensPumpChs21FriendlyCityLensPumpChs24FriendlyCityLensPumpChs25FriendlyCityLensPumpChs26FriendlyCityLensPumpChs27FriendlyCityLensPumpChs30FriendlyCityLensPumpChs29FriendlyCityLensPumpChs31FriendlyCityLensPumpChs35FriendlyCityLensPumpChs33FriendlyCityLensPumpChs36

I hope you find some time today to enjoy a friendly face in your community, bake something that makes the smell of your home hug someone’s face, support a local business that bakes goods with love and purpose or, perhaps, indulge in a hefty slice of pumpkin cheesecake. Here’s a recipe that look a-friggin-mazing. And here’s one that doesn’t even require and oven (and it has lovely photos too). Happy National Pumpkin Cheesecake Day!

And be sure to check out more from my Celebrating Life series!

 

Ashley & Her Dumplings

There are a few roads and chunks of land in Rockingham County, just west of Rt. 42 near Linville, that act as a time machine for me. Gravel turns, belly-flipping hills, broken fence posts, chicken houses, touched-by-time barns, cow-trampled dirt, a storm following the ridge-line in the distance…they serve as photographs to moments passed. To me, these moments are treasures. Little golden trinkets of knowledge practically useless to speak of, yet undoubtedly priceless in the making of me; parts to a whole. This chest of images was spread out before me last week as I drove passed these real-life photographs, on my way to photograph a new memory.

Apples are one of those things that remind me of my Nanny. She was a hard working woman that started picking in the Timberville orchards in her pre-teen years. She used to buy and peel apples for me when I visited her on the weekends as a child. I decided on National Apple Dumpling Day as my Celebrating Life shoot for September in honor of her. When Ashley Sauder Miller told me about her grandmother’s apple dumpling recipe, it took me about four seconds to reply to her…I was sold.

It has been five years since Ashley lost her father and only three years since she lost her grandmother but they are very much alive in her home. For Ashley, her rooted appreciation for cooking didn’t come solely from her grandmother. While Ashley wrangled three of her four children to the kitchen counter, kept multiple conversations going at once, measured ingredients and made me coffee, she reminisced about her dad’s presence in the kitchen when she was a child. She told me a story, one I’m personally familiar with, of the aromas that fill a home during a big cook…and the sounds. These things create connections to your younger self. Just as the salty air and sound of the sea; just as the smell of those ol’ jeans you wore to the last bon fire; just as your sweaty little puppy-dog-smellin’ son after playing outside in his fort all day. Her dad did this for her…he created memories and connections…and meals.

Her content children helped with both dumpling prep and dumpling devouring. They left and rejoined us and went to play again and then helped some more. Those kids don’t even know the information their noses and ears and tastebuds are recording with each moment like this. None of us do I guess. Her son, Sullivan, returned to the kitchen to tell me about their recent visit to get milk from Mt. Crawford Creamer and then he helped mix ingredients with his hands and spoon and then he zoomed his bike around the front porch. Her youngest daughter, Taitum, carried unrelated cabinet findings to a pile in the center of the kitchen floor as her way of helping…all while eating, what seemed to be, an everlasting apple. Her other daughter, Finnly, who was home from school sick, helped stir the sugary, cinnamon-y, glazey topping on the stove then retreated to the sofa for some r&r ‘toon time.  And poor Teagan, the oldest, was stuck at school all day. Wamp.

As Ashley chopped, boiled, mixed and baked, loved on her children, wiped noses and laughed and talked the echoes of her father and grandma filled her kitchen in the form of smells and sounds and love. John and Zona were surely smiling from above…with their mouths watering.

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John, Ashley’s dad, holding her as a baby.

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An old photo of Zona, Ashley's grandma, oversees the apple dumpling making.

An old photo of Zona, Ashley’s grandma, oversees the day’s dumpling making.

Happy Apple Dumpling Day!
Go enjoy the smells and creations of your loved ones!

And be sure to check out more from my Celebrating Life series!

Today is not National Macaron Day.

This post is a testament to one of the most delicious mistakes I’ve ever made. May is home of National Macaroon Day. May 31st, to be exact. There it was, jotted into my planner, making it fact. For this month’s Celebrating Life post I wanted to photograph a macaroon maker, working his or her macaroon magic at home in their kitchen. With some word-of-mouth references I quickly landed a sweet, willing candidate…and cute to boot! When I arrived at Amelia’s house to invade her space for the afternoon, she greeted me at the front door with a big smile, warmly welcomed me into her home, offered me a glass of water…then straight up schooled me. “People always confuse macarons with macaroons,” she explained as she showed those eggs who was boss. Wait, what? Ah geez. That’s me. I’m the people.

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MacarOONS are chewy and made with coconut. MacarONS are made with almond meal and resemble a cookie-like sandwich. They basically share the same list of other ingredients, but let’s face it: as delicious as they both are, macarons are the Homecoming Queens and macaroons are sitting at home in their sweatpants, eating a pint of Kline’s peanut-butter-cookies-n-cream, watching reruns of Girls. After some brief research, I learned that they both started in Italy but the recipe branched into the two directions where macarOONS became more popular with the European Jewish folks and macarONS became a thing of France. Which is why you may know them as French macarons rather than just plain ol’ macarons. Went to foodiversity; servin’ up some knowledge. Aw sookie! Seriously though, you have no reason to trust me. I just used high school, Hollywood and binge eating to prove a point.

As I photographed Amelia in her kitchen, her daughter and the two boys she was babysitting that day played contently in the room around us. Crawling in and out of the sliding door, tossing sippy cups for more water, piecing together giant puzzles on the floor, tugging at her apron and coming in for leg hugs. All the while, Amelia mixed batter, refilled their water, cleaned her work surface, translated the child-grunts, carried on conversation with me, babbled with the kids and distributed about four rounds of gold fish crackers. What a sweet juggler-of-the-daily-circus she is.

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When Amelia pulled the macarons out of the oven, she pointed out their feet. “They gotta have feet,” she explainedThat’s the raised up, crispy-looking bottom half of the cookie that is not as smooth and fluffy as the top half. She had lavender and buttercream ready for the first batch of decorating, followed by cocoa powdered macarons filled with a family recipe for caramel cream that she whipped up on the spot. The kids acted out my thoughts as they tried to snatch a filled macaron at each hint of her potential distraction. It was also hitting that weird hour of nap time when kids turn into zombies on the verge of self-destruction…fearless of consequence. Must. Eat. Coooo-kieeee.

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Even though this was intended to be a shoot to celebrate National Macaroon Day…it is not. I didn’t even shoot macaroons for cryin’ out loud. But I did learn something new and meet a pretty cool gal…and that’s really why I created this whole series to begin with. It was great spending the afternoon getting to know Amelia and taking a glimpse into another hardworkin’ mama’s life…and learning that I’m a culinary idiot, but I’m trying ova hea! I didn’t know anything about Amelia before knocking on her front door, other than she was kind enough to invite me into her home for baking and photos. And after checking out her work online, I’m thankful I knew very little because I would’ve been intimidated by her craftiness! Amelia does creative design/styling and has a growing portfolio of handmade details to make any event extra special and unique. 

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The most precious unintentional smear of flour on her face is a document of hard work in the kitchen…with a super sweet payoff.

The most precious unintentional smear of flour on her cheek is proof of her hard work in the kitchen…with a super sweet payoff.

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 As I drove home to my children with a packed plate full of freshly made macarons, I felt a wee bit smarter, a wee bit plumper and whole lotta happy.

Stop by your local bakery and taste a macaron today…then tomorrow, celebrate National Macaroon Day by trying one of those coconut goodies. You can feel smarter and plumper and happier, too.

MacaronSmall07Check out more from my Celebrating Life series by clicking here.