I compare book with book. I compare recipe with recipe. I compare guy with guy (which, for a single lady, and to her benefit, is a legitimate thing to do — at least that’s what I think).
Anyway, I love to compare. I compare myself with others (this isn’t self denial; this is self improvement). I even compare mother with mother. It irks me to know that, about this quirk of mine, but I do compare my mother with my “mother.”
This is what happens when you’re endowed with two mothers, just like me. (Don’t give me that searing look, yet.)
As I age, as 24 draws nigh, I’m here telling you, admittedly and shamelessly, days of yelling and arguments make up the bulk of my relationship with Kim, my mom. Occasionally the space between us is a silence, an emotional yet comforting one. Our eyes would strike up a conversation across the hall, and our bodies would speak a language that no one, not even my dad and brothers, can fully understand.
Don’t even try to disagree with a Chinese parent, as many would say, and this is particularly true about the older generations. The Chinese parent is, at the first glance, apathetic, intimidating, and perpetually untouchable. But deep down, he or she is shy, and is trying to hide all emotions and feelings from the child. The Chinese parent cares for the little one like any other parent would.
Mama, I’m back. Upon reaching home from work, I sometimes let out a quiet sigh, with exhaustion printed across my face. Kim is sitting before the TV set, watching an episode or two of a Cantonese soap. She glimpses at me, then welcomes me with a gentle, unpretentious smile and a light nod of her head, a nod that would go unnoticed have you not paid attention to. Finally she shifts her focus to the TV, again.
It’s been hard for me to have a long, intimate talk with Kim, much less a chitchat or other possibilities for a bonding session. Mama, can we just sit down and chat? I suggested on a Thursday evening two weeks ago. Don’t you want to know more about my life?
Alas, that’d never happened. My effort went down the drain. The shyness of the Chinese parent frustrates me and has me compare my mom with the past. I miss the openness and yearn for the warmth found in my American mom Bonnie.
Hello, Pei-Lin! How was your day?
I’d hear words like these, said in a crisp, motherly, melodious voice, if Bonnie happened to pick up the phone. It’s just a simple line. Still, it warmed my soul. It was what I needed in the six-month-long bone-chilling winter of Minnesota.
At her humble abode, which opens up to a 40-acre plot of woods nestled in the beautiful lake country of northern Minnesota, we’d sink into the couch, relax, and talk. It rarely occurred to me as hard to open up myself to Bonnie. And she’d share her stories with me, too. Spending time with her was unlike anything I’d experienced before. I felt home away from home. I felt cherished. I felt as if we’d known each other for years, though I was there for 32 months.
Every now and then, I dream of being in Bonnie’s kitchen again, helping her prepare a meal at the stove, or enjoying a homecooked meal with her and her family, or standing by the sink doing dishes with her — she’d wash the dirty bowls and plates in suds while I rinse and drain by the dish drainer.
When I think of Bonnie, her kitchen, and the adjacent bookshelf of dog-eared cookbooks whose worn pages have turned yellow with age (unless you’ve moved the entire shelf since I left, Bonnie!), I often think of her pumpkin bar smeared with maply cream-cheese frosting.
Every year, from late summer through early fall, before frost hits the ground (winter in Minnesota comes in as early as October), Bonnie and her family would be busy gathering wheelbarrows of pumpkins and winter squash in their huge backyard. (These two look similar, and so, to avoid confusion, let’s stick with the name “pumpkin.”)
My American family would wind up with a mob of these round, thick, pulpy vegetables, which are then tucked in the coolest part of my American dad Steve’s workshop. They are usually more than enough to last the family through the year, until the next fall.
With pumpkins all year round, over the years, Bonnie’s family has embraced ways to savor them: frosted pumpkin bars, pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, yeasted bread tainted gold with pumpkin purée, chocolate pumpkin cake, pumpkin pie, and pumpkin-pie cake (and maybe more, which I can’t recall). I love them all, especially her frosted pumpkin bar.
The revelation came in the February of 2007, while having lunch at Bonnie’s. The dessert bar, of a darker shade of gold and under a blanket of beige, creamy concoction, was one of those Americana I was first exposed to.
|Bonnie's frosted pumpkin bars – the ones I ate more than four years ago.|
I didn’t jot down Bonnie’s recipe to bring home, nor did I email her for that. When I was in a mood for frosted pumpkin bar, I couldn’t wait and, out of desperation, Googled for a recipe and landed on Christina’s. I poured in lots of faith, hoping the bars would turn out as how I’d remembered: spiced, fluffy, very moist and tender, and with a luscious maple-inspired frosting redolent of burnt sugar.
Using Christina’s recipe, the pumpkin bars I’d made differed slightly from Bonnie’s but in a welcoming way. They remind you of the pumpkin bread, the wet-to-dry-then-mix-and-bake one. They’re incredibly moist and tender but not as cakey-fluffy. They carry the sweet, warm, woodsy aroma of the cinnamon, which helps to accentuate pumpkin’s natural sweetness. Do note, though, that Bonnie uses pumpkie-pie spice mix, so, more dimension and greater depth to the flavor of her bar.
These pumpkin bars are delicious on their own, and nothing is wrong with that, but when daubed with big, fat slabs of the maply cream-cheese frosting, they become out-of-this-world deliciousness. Don’t skip and don’t skimp on this! (I know. I know some of you have aversion to frosting. Too bad.) The dark, rich burnt-sugar-like scent of the maple entices me to eat the frosting straight off the spoon. The way the frosting melts in my mouth and slinks down my throat is sexiness beyond description. Mmm!
Once they were baked, I patiently let the pan cool thoroughly, and afterward, plastered the bars with a thick layer of the frosting. I patiently let them chill and their flavors mellow for an hour in the fridge. On that warm Sunday evening, I gobbled up two generously frosted pumpkin bars. Craving sated.
Kim ate some, too, though she thought the frosting needed a pinch of salt, which is redundant, I think. Then again, this is arbitrary, so I’m not arguing with my own mom. It’s just, when I’m living in two different worlds and overlooked by two mothers who don’t share the same history and palate and view, I’m wont to fall into the comparison trap, which has led me to realize …
Hey, I’m a blessed kid!
My moms rock my socks off!
These maply-frosting-covered pumpkin bars are 10 times better than the brownie!
Pumpkin Bars With Maply Cream-Cheese Frosting
Adapted from Christina
220 grams all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, at room temperature
250 grams caster or granulated sugar (I’d reduced the sugar, but if you like yours sweeter, up the amount by 125 grams.)
237 milliliters flavorless oil such as canola, corn, or vegetable
425 grams pumpkin purée
* Here’s an easy way to get cooked pumpkin pulp out of a whole pumpkin, which I’d learned from Bonnie. Preheat the oven to 150°C. Using a sharp knife, you first perforate the pumpkin, all over, then place into a rimmed baking pan or dish that’s been filled with water to 70-percent full. Bake the whole pumpkin in the water bath for about one hour or until cooked through. Try piercing the still-warm pumpkin with a knife, and if the knife meets no resistance, the pumpkin is cooked. Let the pumpkin rest until it’s cool enough to handle. You may cut it in half, gently remove the seeds and fibrous strings from the center (you may discard the seeds or toast them in the oven for a healthy snack), and, with a spoon, scoop out the pulp. Purée the pulp in a blender — it’ll be smooth and ready for use.
227 grams cream cheese, softened
113 grams unsalted butter, softened (You can try with salted butter, too, or fillip a little salt to the frosting, like what Kim had suggested.)
220 grams powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon Mapleine, or sometimes labeled as imitation maple flavor instead (I use McCormick, and, for those of you in the Kuala Lumpur area, I got mine from Ampang Grocers. Still, if you don’t have that, pure vanilla extract will work fine.)
Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan generously with, say, shortening, and set aside. I used an 8-by-12-inch baking pan — the best I could find. Preheat the oven to 180°C. In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk together (A), and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, using a handheld electric mixer, mix together (B) at medium speed until pale and fluffy. I mixed things up by hand, with a large balloon whisk. Then sift in the flour mixture, and, using a rubber spatula, thoroughly combine the dry and wet ingredients by hand — don’t overmix. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Make sure the surface of the batter is level.
Place the pan in the preheated oven to bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. The pan of “sheet cake” — before cutting into bars, that is — should look golden brown. Because I used a slightly smaller pan, so mine turned out taller than Bonnie’s and Christina’s. Remove the pan from the oven and set on a cooling rack to cool completely before you frost it.
For the frosting, using a handheld electric mixer, cream together (C) until smooth at medium speed. Then, stir in the powdered sugar and mix well on low. Mix in the Mapleine. Spread the frosting on the cooled “sheet cake.” You may cut it into bars to enjoy now, but I chose to refrigerate mine for an hour before serving. These frosted pumpkin bars taste better with rest; I liked mine best on the second and third day. Store them in covered container(s) in the fridge. Enjoy them preferably at room temperature.