Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A new spin on carrot cake, four-year-old style March 9, 2017

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WHEN MY GREAT NEPHEW Landon turned four last week, he asked for a carrot cake. What preschooler chooses that flavor of birthday cake? A kid who loves vegetables and, as far as I have observed, every food. I’ve even watched Landon eat an ear of raw sweetcorn just pulled from the stalk.

His mom, Amber, makes one delicious carrot cake. She bakes and cooks from scratch. No boxed mixes or convenience foods for her or her family. Or guests. Lucky me.

I could end this story here by singing praises about the carrot-cake-baking mom and the boy who loves carrot cake.

Landon, with help from his nearly two-year-old sister Evelyn, sticks raw carrots into his carrot cake. And, yes, he chose to wear a Halloween shirt at his birthday party. When you’re four, you can do that.

But Landon is Landon and he took this carrot cake thing a bit further. As Amber finished prepping his birthday meal of spaghetti and meatballs, Landon pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter. He then reached into a container of raw carrots, celery, radishes and peppers and pulled out the carrots. As we watched, Landon poked the carrots, like candles, into his birthday cake. How’s that for a veggie loving four-year-old?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Turning one May 13, 2016

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Birthday, 5 blowing out candle

 

BIG BROTHER BLEW out the candle. But one-year-old Evelyn didn’t care. She seemed more focused on the flame. And then the cake. Smart girl.

 

Birthday, cake 1

 

Her mom baked a homemade chocolate cake layered with homemade raspberry preserves and frosted with more chocolate. The cake looked like something out of a food magazine. And it tasted like something out of a master baker’s kitchen.

 

Birthday, 15 eating cake

 

Once the prerequisite candle blowing was complete, Evelyn proceeded to dig into all that chocolatey goodness while grandmas and aunts laughed and snapped more photos.

 

Birthday, 17 eating cake

 

When a child turns one, we celebrate with exuberance. It is a joyful and memorable occasion. A first. First year. First cake. So many firsts during those first 12 months of life.

I wonder what lies ahead for my sweet great niece. I look forward to watching her grow under the care of loving parents. She is much-loved, too, by extended family. And I can’t think of anything better for a one-year-old than to be so loved.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Kids helping kids celebrate on the prairie & more January 29, 2014

A CANDLE-TOPPED CAKE and a small toy may not seem like much to celebrate a birthday.

But to a child in need, both mean a great deal.

The birthday cake booklet from my childhood that Bernie found on eBay.

The booklet from which my siblings and I chose our birthday cake designs.

I understand. Growing up in a poor farm family on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, I did not receive gifts from my parents on my birthday. They had no money for such extras. Rather, my mom pulled out her 1959 General Foods Corporation’s Baker’s Coconut Animal Cut-Up Cake booklet so I could choose a design for my birthday cake.

My second birthday and the clown cake my mom made for me.

Me with the clown cake my mom made for my second birthday.

With those birthday memories on my mind, I was pleased to read Tuesday of a community service project undertaken by the Class of 2019 at Westbrook-Walnut Grove Public Schools, 45 minutes to the south of my hometown of Vesta.

Students are assembling birthday bags for Mary and Martha’s Pantry, a Westbrook-based food shelf, according to information in the January 28 issue of the Westbrook/Walnut Grove Charger Report on the school website.

IRRESISTIBLE CHOCOLATE CRAZY CAKE!

Birthday gift bags will include cake mixes. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The gift bags will include a cake mix, frosting, candles, a Happy Birthday banner and a small toy. How sweet is that? I love to learn about kids doing good.

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SOME 170 MILES to the north and east in the Twin Cities metro, Eagan-based Cheerful Givers has provided birthday gift bags to 700,000-plus children during the past 20 years.

The non-profit’s mission is to “provide toy-filled gift bags to food shelves and shelters so that parents living in poverty can give their child a birthday gift. We believe this simple gesture boosts self-esteem, enhances self-worth, and strengthens bonds in families.”

And might I add, these bags filled with 10 items like books, plush toys, puzzles, stickers and more, simply make a child happy.

Two months from today, on Saturday, March 29, Cheerful Givers is celebrating its 20th birthday with “The Great Minnesota Birthday Party” in the Sear’s Court at the Mall of America. The goal of the 1 – 3 p.m. event is to raise $20,0000 and “to spread awareness of the need for all kids to be recognized with a gift on their birthday.”

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Back on the prairie, far from the big city, teens at Westbrook-Walnut Grove Public Schools aren’t planning a fundraiser for the Mary and Martha’s Pantry birthday bags. Rather, they are dipping in to their own funds (or those of their parents and others) to purchase gift bag items. And in the process, they are learning, in my opinion, that “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

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FYI: To learn more about the W-WG school project, click here and see #13 in the Charger report.

To learn more about Eagan-based Cheerful Givers, click here.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

An unexpected gift from Bernie December 2, 2011

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Bernie

I’VE NEVER MET Bernie, never even spoken to her. She lives in Billings, Montana, with her husband Roy and their cats.

She’s the modern-day version of a pen pal who has become a friend.

It all started when Bernie discovered my Minnesota Prairie Roots blog and began commenting on my posts. Naturally, I had to check out her One Mixed Bag blog.

There I found a former Minnesotan who writes with honesty and humor in a voice that keeps drawing me back. This woman is laugh-out-loud funny. She makes me smile. She makes me giggle. She makes me think. And sometimes she even makes me cry. More on that later.

At some point, and again I don’t recall specifics, our friendship extended beyond blog comments to the occasional e-mail.

After reading an especially touching post penned by Bernie, I suggested she submit it to Minnesota Moments magazine.  This woman can write. The story will publish in our winter issue.

Then, when I created a “Snapshots of Love” contest, with results publishing in Minnesota Moments’ winter edition, I thought of Bernie and the handcrafted vintage style greeting cards she creates and sells through her online shop Budugalee. Even the name makes me laugh. I asked Bernie if she would contribute perhaps a half dozen greeting cards to our prize package.

Well, this artist wanted to give more—a card a month, plus. Bernie’s that kind of person. The type who’s giving and caring and kind and generous all rolled into one.

That brings us to this week and to the unexpected package that arrived Thursday morning from Bernie. I figured she was sending me some of her handcrafted cards. She did. One. It’s a beauty.

The card Bernie handcrafted for me, celebrating my mother's gift of birthday cakes. That's me in the photo, on my second birthday.

She remembered how, several times in blog posts, I wrote about the birthday cakes my mom created for me and my siblings when we were growing up. My parents didn’t have money for gifts; the cake was the gift, I wrote.

Those stories of birthdays without presents and the loving gift of a cake touched something in Bernie. She made it her mission to find a copy of the 1959 General Foods Corporation’s Baker’s Coconut Animal Cut-up Cake booklet that my siblings and I thumbed through each birthday to choose the cake our mother would create.

Thursday morning I unwrapped the slim package from Bernie, expecting a packet of her cards. Instead, she gifted me with memories of birthdays past in that cake booklet she found on eBay.

The birthday cake booklet from my childhood that Bernie found on eBay.

I couldn’t help myself. I started crying in what my friend would surely term “big, blubbering, snot-bubble kind of sobs.”

Bernie could not have possibly known this, but her gift came at a time when I needed uplifting and something to make me smile. When I told Bernie this in an e-mail, she shared that, despite her husband’s suggestion to mail the cake booklet shortly before Christmas, she insisted, “No, I really need to send it out this week.”

She’s had the booklet for several weeks.

Bernie was right. This was the week I needed to receive her gift. Somehow she knew…

That we should all have a friend like Bernie…

TELL ME. When has a friend touched your life with an unexpected, just-right gift given at precisely the right moment?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Happy birthday, Miranda! November 16, 2011

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Miranda, five days old

MY SECOND BORN turned 24 today.

Miranda lives 5 ½ hours away in eastern Wisconsin so I had to settle for texting a birthday wish to her this morning. Finally, around 4:30 p.m., she got back to me after a long work day that began at 4:30 a.m. She had to be at an area hospital by 6 a.m. to interpret for a Spanish-speaking patient undergoing surgery.

She didn’t have much time to chat; her friend Greg was arriving soon and they were going out for a birthday dinner. Miranda hadn’t eaten all day and she was hungry.

Afterward she was having friends over to celebrate. One of them, Gerardo, planned to bring the cake.

I don’t know if they ate any of the cake. But my husband, who just talked to our daughter, told me the cake was smashed in her face. Knowing several of the invited guests, I expect it was Julio’s idea. Miranda said she saw it coming.

Now I don’t think I’d much like a cake or pie or anything smashed in my face. But I’m not 24 either.

I had to think for a minute today about exactly how old my daughter was.

“Mom, you don’t know how old I am?” she asked, a strong tone of disbelief tingeing her question.

I had to do the math quick-like in my head. I didn’t tell her, but thought, “I can’t even remember how old I am sometimes.”

And sometimes I find it hard to believe that my two daughters are in their 20s, my son turning 18 in a few months. Where did the years go? Honestly.

No one smashed cake into Miranda's face when she was almost two; she managed this all on her own.

Miranda with her Little Mermaid birthday cake on her fifth birthday in 1992. That's a troll she's clutching and a homemade birthday hat with her nickname, Tib (after Tib in the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace). Everyone loved Miranda's curly hair.

 

A chocolate cake tradition of love June 22, 2011

Homemade chocolate Crazy Cake frosted with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting.

THEY RAVED ABOUT the moistness of the cake. And three of them—all guys—forked up a second slice of the chocolate cake I’d made from scratch.

I almost said, “Ummm, guys, it’s the women who should have a second piece.” But I let them be, passing the cake pan around the table, plating more cake.

This is one moist, delicious chocolate cake.

Then, because I couldn’t help myself, I shared the story about this cake. They needed to hear it, to understand that they weren’t eating just any old cake but cake made from a special recipe.

This Crazy Cake, aka Wacky Cake, is the chocolate cake of my youth, the one my mom made every time she baked a birthday cake, I told my friends.

“We didn’t have much money, didn’t get birthday presents,” I explained as my friends savored each bite of chocolate cake. “So our birthday present was the cake, an animal cake my mom made.

She would pull out her cake book and let us pick the animal shape we wanted for our birthday cake—a lion, a horse, a duck, an elephant…”

“My mom had a book like that too,” my friend Jackie chimed in.

Mari, on the other end of the table, nodded her head. Likewise, her mother had a booklet that provided instructions for transforming round cakes and square cakes and oblong cakes into animal shapes.

By cutting the cake and decorating it with various candies and frosting, my mom transformed a plain chocolate cake in to a special animal-shaped birthday cake.

Those birthday cakes were magical. I never missed the birthday presents, never even knew I should receive gifts, because I had that cake, that special, special chocolate animal-shaped cake.

When I became a mother, I continued the tradition with my children. While I didn’t have an animal cake book, I had my imagination. I made a snowman, Garfield, Piglet, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a horse (that looked more like a cow than an equine)…

Unlike me, my children got birthday presents, plenty of them. But I would like to think that the one they will remember is the annual gift of an animal-shaped birthday cake, a gift, really, passed down from their grandmother.

For in the passing down of that tradition, I’m honoring their grandma, my mom, who taught me that birthdays are not about prettily wrapped presents, but about love. And that love, for me, will always be symbolized by homemade chocolate Crazy Cake.

Chocolate Crazy Cake

3 cups flour

2 cups white sugar

½ cup cocoa

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking soda

Mix the dry ingredients together and then stir in:

¾ cup salad (vegetable) oil

2 cups cold water

2 Tablespoons vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pour into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan and bake at 350 degrees for 35 – 40 minutes.

When the cake is cool, whip up a bowl of this creamy Chocolate Buttercream Frosting.

When cool, frost with:

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

6 Tablespoons butter, softened

½ cup cocoa

2 2/3 cups powdered sugar

1/3 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream butter in a small mixing bowl. Then add the cocoa and powdered sugar alternately with the milk, beating to a spreading consistency. You may need to add an additional tablespoon of milk. Blend in vanilla. Spread on cake. Makes about two cups of frosting.

The recipe yields two cups of heavenly, finger-licking-good frosting.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Recipes from The Cook’s Special, 1973, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Vesta, Minnesota, and Hershey’s Easy-Does-It Recipe #10

 

A birthday treasure September 26, 2010

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TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY. I need to think for a minute exactly how old I am. Take 2010 minus 1956 and you get 54. Yeah, that would be right.

Funny how the years pass and you lose count after 40, or 50. Where did time go?

I bet my mom wonders that, too, today. How could her second-born of six already be “that old?” Yeah, how?

Birthdays back when I was growing up aren’t like birthday celebrations today. Years ago, we gathered with extended family—grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins—a whole houseful crammed into a farmhouse. Pans of bars. Red Jell-O. Summer sausage sandwiches. Homemade dill pickles. Coffee brewing in the kitchen. Bottled pop and Schell’s beer.

And when we left for home around midnight, we wished the birthday girl, or boy, “many more birthdays!” Tradition. Sweet words, sweet wishes.

Because my birthday fell the day after my parents’ wedding anniversary, I seldom “had company” on my birthday. The relatives would come the night before to celebrate the anniversary, then forget all about my special day.

But my mom made my birthday memorable by baking an animal-shaped cake, chosen from a slim book of cake designs. There was no present from my parents—they didn’t have the money for a gift—and I didn’t really know I should expect one. My animal-shaped cake was enough, although my godmother always sewed an outfit for me. She knew I needed new clothes more than anything.

One year my Aunt Rachel gave me a greeting card with an adjustable green-stone ring tucked into a treasure chest. An emerald in my eyes. I slipped the ring onto my skinny girl finger. I wore the ring every day, all the time, until one day I lost it.

Of all the birthday cards I’ve received in my life, I remember that one and how I cried when the mock emerald became buried treasure in our farmyard.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling