Thursday, August 10, 2006

Counting My Blessings

The family bathing in Vesterhavet...

I think I was 13 when I first met C, my Dad's wife. When writing about her here, I often refer to her as my Stepmom, but really, that title has a bit much Cinderella-"Where's my dress!? Clean my room!"-ring to it - so how about a bonus-Mom then? I think we'll call her that. Because that really sums up what she means to me better.

Anyways. 13. My Dad and I had recently returned from a trip to Burgundy - a trip where the driving back (which, I might point out is just short of 2000 kilometers) was done by my Dad in one stretch, in a little less than 24 hours. He obviously wanted to get home, and I was oblivious as to the possibility of there being such a thing as love involved in his determination to get back so fast. I was just happy to go back to all of my friends at home!

A week or two after we'd returned home, I spend the weekend at my Dad's, as I used to do every other weekend back in the days. My Dad, the lawyer, had a little errand to run, so we took the car to go have a look at a clients house - something about some gravel running into places it shouldn't after a great big rainfall.

And there she was. Standing at the top of the gravel-y mess, on the terasse of a huge, cubistic house, waving. Looking like Sigourney Weaver (which, to this day, she loves me for saying!), dark curly hair and a big smile. My Dad - blushing, was he?? I still had no idea they knew each other other than professionally, but looking back (and because in retrospect, everything is always more clear) I guess I did pick up on something. This wasn't just a client.

I forget how long it took for Dad to admit they were seeing each other, other than at the office. You see, not only was she a client of his - she was one of his employees. That just isn't so comme-il-faut. And she was younger - a LOT younger - like almost 20 years younger. My Dad, the stud!:-)

Eventually, I got to meet her, other than when she was perched at the top of her house. There was a lot of parties, with tons of my Dad and C's friends. There were sleep-overs at her house. And somewhere along the way, I realized that these two - they might actually stick it out. There had been girlfriends of Dad's before, but not like this one. I don't know what exactly set this one apart from the others, but she was special.

From the restaurant at Svinkløv Badehotel...

And sure enough. Marriage. Siblings - two, even! And aunts, grandparents, cousins, from C's side of the family, to boot - not to mention all of her friends and their families.

C has a magical way around people. It's hard to define, but you just know it when you meet a person that's like this. I guess my Dad has the same thing, but it never really occured to me before they moved in together. I guess before he met C, it was mostly his bachelor friends and their hangarounds that benefitted from it. But C and Dad's house is the kind of house where you always feel at home. You trust these people, you confide in them. You can plonk yourself down on the sofa and relax, and not talk, if that's what you want to. Serve yourself - there are always cold beer and soda in the fridge, there's always food to be had, and a bed to sleep in. But most importantly, there's always good company. The house is always brimming with people - even when it's empty. Their house is a place I can't help but call home, even though I've never actually lived there. And it's just like the home I hope I'll have myself one day.

And then there's the food. I already told you about my Dad probably being one of the biggest influences in my food-"life", when we're talking the family's influence. But come to think of it, C probably ranks pretty high up there, too.

She was the one that brought into my conscious recollection stuff like freshly picked and still warm from the sun strawberries and peas in their pods. The peas, preferably eaten in the car, straight out of the brown paper bag we bought them in by the farm door. She taught me, just as I guess her mother taught her, to leave an up-turned plate in the bottom of the bowl where yu put your washed and hulled strawberries, so that the water from the draining strawberries wont turn the bottom ones into mush. She taught me how to use a salad spinner for drying lettuce, and consenquently, it was one of the first things I HAD to acquire when I got my own place. Her Mom and her taught me how to make Mormorsalat. We peel fjordrejer together, sitting on each side of their big kitchen table, papers scattered everywhere to catch the debris, and us, talking happily. She loves soups - any kind, pureed, clear broths - but hold the "fillings", she just wants the "water". I don't think I ever had a proper chicken soup until she made it, all from scratch, over the course of a day. I think she's probably the first to, without me knowing it, teach me to respect the ingredient, and the unique flavor each one posses. Not because she told me, but because she cooked me food that was honest and down-to-earth.

She's always been a friend, more than she has a mom. I remember when she lost her mom, a couple years back. I was travelling at the time, and yes, I felt terrible that my (bonus-)grandmom was dying, but the thing that got me the most was not being able to be there for C. Not being able to share her pain, or her worries, or do whatever she needed me to do. Not being able to help her get through it. Not being able to just sit down and talk, like we used to. We talk a lot. About boys. About my Dad, that I got to know in a whole new way, once C entered our lives. We talk about my siblings. Relationships. Family. How to bring up children. And we talk about food. And despite everything she's taught me about food, she still calls me for help with recipes, ingredient-substituitions and general cooking advice.

Her newest thing is a greenhouse. She grows tomatoes, cucumbers, chilis and a load of herbs, and looks like a small child beaming over her Christmas presents every time she talks about them. And she takes your hand and drags you out there to have a look at what's growing now.

She's starting traditions: for the last three years, we've been baking Christmas cookies. For my birthday the last 5 or 6 years, where I cook for my entire family at Dad and C's house, she's always there, helping me out in the kitchen, getting excited about making little tarts or plucking parsley or whatever I need her to do. She sets the table. Every year, for my brother and sister's birthday, she graciously allows me to make layer cakes for her children. C's mom used to do it, but after she passed away, for some reason C thought I was the person to take over that tradition. One I'm proud of continuing.

Another tradition that runs in her family, is the trip to the north of Jylland every summer. If everything comes together, I'm get to go, too. And when we're really lucky, we go to Svinkløv Badehotel.

It's a pretty, little hotel just off the beach. Every room has it's own pastel color with matching furniture and paintings. It's family run and it's just so cute and quaint you have to go there and see it. Go for a walk in the wind on the beach, then go back and have a cup of tea and a piece of their walnut layer cake. Not that I've ever tried it, but it sure looks decadent. And if you're really, REALLY lucky, you'll have fantastic company with you. Like a family, that even though it's very non-traditional in it's set-up, is perfect for me. It might not be easy to explain to people how we're related, but I love it - Bonus-Mom, Bonus-Granddad, -aunts, -cousins and all!

As I mentioned, I haven't tried their walnut layer cake, but I have the recipe in a cookbook they released a couple of years ago. In that book, there's also a recipe for a wonderful bread. It's probably the one bread I've made most times in my life. I can't help but think of the place and all of the memories related to it whenever I make it.

Svinkløvbrød - Bread from Svinkløv - from "Svinkløv Badehotel" by Mikael Christensen

- makes 2 medium loaves
25 g. fresh yeast
300 ml. water, cold
25 g. salt
10 g. sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil, or melted butter
400 ml. buttermilk
600 g. wheat flour
300 g. durum wheat flour
100 g. grahamflour (coarse wheat)

Dissolve the yeast in the water. Add salt, sugar and olive oil/butter. Add buttermilk and flour, and knead thouroughly. I start out using my KitchenAid, but usually do the last bit by hand. Put the dough back in a greased and clingfilm-covered bowl, and put in the fridge for at least 6 hours. You could choose to leave the dough to rise on the kitchen counter (draft-free and all that), in which case you should probably count on a 2 hour-ish rise.

When the rise is over, punch back the dough and shape into 2 round loaves. Leave to prove, covered with a damp dish towel. I think I usually let them rise for about 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees celcius. Brush the loaves with water, then bake for 25-30 minutes. Check for doneness by tapping the loaf underneith - if it sounds hollow, it's done. Leave to cool on a wire rack.


sam said...

that's a truly beautiful ode to your bonus family. Now I wish I had though about it that way, I wish everyone would!

Cathy said...

What a lovely post - C must really be great. I know the role of step... er, I mean bonus-mom isn't always easy (Patty is one too), but sounds like she has done splendidly. I'm sure she'd say her bonus-daughter is pretty great too!

Hey, and you're baking bread too! Yay!

Tanna said...

You certainly titled it correctly. And yes, I'd say you are a wonderful bonus-daughter.
Her wisdom maybe in knowing how to connect everyone - it's what gets and keeps us together!
Very beautiful post!

Ivonne said...

I have tears in my eyes ... what a beautiful tribute to someone who is obviously so near and dear to you.

Great bread too!

Tea said...

What a lovely tribute! I am left a little teary-eyed as well. How lucky you are to have a wonderful, unconventional family--and even luckier to recognize and appreciate it. Bonus family--I like that.

Anonymous said...

Hej Zarah!

I haven't followed your blog for long, but it's really good. I think you'd be a perfect contributor for Information or WeekendAvisen as a foodie with an author's agenda as well. Ever crossed your mind?

Oh, and I walked passed you the other day in front of Irma- I was so surprised, that I forgot to ask for your autograph :-)

jenjen said...

that hotel looks serenely beautiful I would love to got here someday what a beautiful place.
And also your bread looks amazing I love its soft brown colour!

shammi said...

What a wonderful post! It isnt everybody who gets along so well with their dad's wife... your affection for her and her family is so obvious. You're very lucky :)

Zarah Maria said...

Aww, you guys! I know, I'm lucky - it's a weird combo of people, but we all just seem to get along - not only that, we also seem to like being part of it! I think what might be a big part of the whole thing coming up peaches is also that noone tries taking each others roles: C's always known that I already have a splendid mother, one that I'm pretty sure she even admires for her abilities as a mom - so there was no need for her to be one for me, too. Ah yes, blessed I am.

And Jennie - next time, say Hi, I would love to meet you! (I would also love writing for WeekendAvisen or Information, but I think meeting you have a higher chance of happening!:-))

Julie said...

Zarah, this is an absolutely gorgeous and moving piece of writing. You completely redefine the notion of "blended family" into something lovely and positive -- you touch on the possibility of people entering our lives so we can learn from them and give back to them, rather than getting stuck on societal notions of what a "family" should look like.

And, I'm curious about the bread. Are all 3 of the wheat flours you mention whole-grain? I know the graham is, but are the other two just different sorts of white flour or are they whole wheat also?

Melissa said...

Hi Zarah, what a beautiful post, so heartfelt and so well said! You are both very lucky to have each other, and thank you for the reminder that something wonderful can often come out of something sad (i.e. divorce).

Zarah Maria said...

Hi Julie! Thank you - and well said, yourself. Re. the flours: the graham is, as you say, whole-grain. The wheat flour is just "regular" bread flour (only I use an organic, biodynamically grown one with a high gluten and protein content) and the durum is - well, it looks like regular flour, so I don't think I'd call it wholegrain. It's a Danish grown variety, but it's the sort of flour you'd usually use for making pasta. So, graham = wholegrain, two others white. Hope that helped, it's hard to find out what's the equivalent of what - I have loads of American baking books that states all sorts of flours that I'm not quite sure as to what I might use in place of them - but I'm trying to figure it out...

Melissa - thank you!:-) And well said yourself - something good can come out of something bad. I like that.

Bonus Families said...

My name is Jann Blackstone-Ford and I'm the dirctor of Bonus Fmailies, a non-profit organization for divorce and stepfamilies. I was surfing the net and found your lovely post. No need to hyphenate bonus-mom. It's bonusmom...and I invite you all to read and write me at Also, I'm working on Chicken soup for the Stepfamily Sul and something about C. would be lovely. Even excerpting something you hav hear might work.

Write me at
I'd love to hear for you.