This time last week, I was in a wood stove-heated cottage with no Internet, no telephone, and no television, reading my sixth New Yorker of the day. I am fully caught up with The New Yorker. (!) (!!) Those words may never again be assembled in that order by me, or by anyone, ever.
Actually, I should already switch tenses: I was caught up with The New Yorker. Briefly. Past tense.
Last week, I had the pleasure of spending two nights at Hedgebrook, a nonprofit retreat for women writers, located on Whidbey Island. It’s an incredible place: just six one-room cabins, a cottage, a farmhouse, a garden, and a couple of woodsheds on 48 acres, dedicated solely giving women the time, space, and quiet to write, free of charge. (!) (!!) At the end of each day, at 5:30 pm, the six or seven writers in residence gather in the farmhouse kitchen to share a meal cooked for them by one of Hedgebrook’s chefs, with ingredients largely harvested from the garden. And afterward, they each take their flashlight and a basket of breakfast makings and lunch and walk back to their cabins in the trees, and no one disturbs them, or comes looking for them, or asks anything of them, and definitely, definitely no one there needs a diaper change or wakes up crying in the middle of the night, and this superlative quiet continues until 5:30 pm the next day, when the writers meet for dinner again, walk home with their baskets again, etc. etc. etc. (!!!) I try not to use the word magic too often, not unless the topic is actual magic, magical magic. But Hedgebrook has it.
This fall, Hedgebrook is celebrating its 25th birthday, and it has also just released a cookbook of recipes served at the farmhouse table, and because of that, I was offered a stay there, to experience it. I don’t usually do PR stuff; it’s not what I like to write about. But I had heard about Hedgebrook years ago from a photographer friend of my mom’s, and I had thought about applying to be a writer in residence someday, but I was too intimidated to do it. So boarding the ferry for Whidbey Island, I was giddy, electric. It took a full day for my insides to stop vibrating.
I stayed in a cottage called Meadowhouse, which is apparently the same place where Gloria Steinem stays when she goes to Hedgebrook. (!!!!) Most writers stay at Hedgebrook for two to six weeks. I was there for 48 hours. The time seemed so short that it almost hurt to look at the clock. I spent the first day resisting the urge to make a to-do list and launch into it at breakneck speed. (Shower in the same shower that Gloria Steinem showered in: CHECK! Pee in the same toilet that Gloria Steinem peed in: CHECK! Prod log in wood stove with same wrought iron poker thing that Gloria Steinem prodded log with: CHECK!) But having nothing to do but take care of myself and do my work – whatever that meant, because no one would be keeping score – the hours felt slow, expansive, extra, as though I had gone through a portal and come out in a universe where the days are twice as long.
I learned how to build a fire in my wood stove, and how to keep it burning. I read eight New Yorkers and started Madame Bovary. I took a walk in the woods on the property and another down to the beach. I listened to an owl. I ate two slices of butter cake filled with raspberries. I had two dinners and easy conversation with six other women writers. I slept in. I took pictures. I was temporarily blinded by euphoria and a ray of sunlight and walked into a blackberry bush. I went out to the woodshed and brought in more firewood. I thought about what I might write next, whenever I feel ready to write another book.
Every year, to mark Delancey’s birthday, we donate the evening’s sales to a cause we believe in, and next year, I announced to Brandon, we’re going to give them to Hedgebrook. There aren’t many (any?) other places where a woman can go to be nurtured this way, given food and shelter and supportive peers and space to do creative work, without an exchange of money and regardless of her means. I hope Hedgebrook is still around in another 25 years, and for a long time after that.
Denise Barr, one of the cooks at Hedgebrook, served this cake at the first dinner of my stay. She used fresh raspberries from the garden, and it was so good – simple, buttery, with a damp, nubbly, almost muffin-like crumb – that I dog-eared the recipe later that night. The cookbook calls it a Rhubarb Cake, but you could probably make it with any soft fruit, and when I tasted it, before I saw the recipe in the cookbook, it struck me first as a wonderful butter cake. I hope Denise won’t mind that I tweaked the name. When I made it at home, I thawed out a batch of rhubarb compote that I made last summer and spooned it into the batter, and it was terrific.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter and flour an 8-inch square cake pan.
In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Pour the milk into a measuring cup or small bowl, and add the vanilla extract. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or with a handheld mixer in a large bowl), beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, and then add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour mixture and the milk mixture in three doses each, alternating dry and wet. Mix until just combined; then use the rubber spatula to give the batter a brief final mix, to make sure the flour is absorbed.
If you’re using fresh rhubarb or berries, stir the fruit with the tapioca in a small bowl.
Scoop about half of the batter into the prepared cake pan, and spread it across the bottom. Scatter the fruit evenly over the batter – or, if you’re using rhubarb compote, dollop spoonfuls of it evenly over the batter. Do not press the fruit down. Top with the rest of the batter. Don’t worry if the batter doesn’t fully cover the fruit: it will puff and move a bit as it bakes.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool before slicing into squares and serving.
Note: This cake is best on the day that it’s made, but wrapped tightly and stored at room temperature, it should be fine for at least a couple of days.