The specter of spring cleaning has filled me with a certain dread this year, but I am coming around slowly and with much coaxing. The days when our home was deeply clean and organized feel like a phantom life to me. I still open closets with expectation, a clear vision of their former lives. But they are now in chaos, crammed and choked full with items jammed and shoved in or tossed on top. There is luggage teetering on top of a pyramid of canning jars in the storage room, and so much dust surrounds the 1990s collection of children’s VHS tapes huddled at the back of our armoire that I cringe at the thought of disturbing any of it, the old cameras, the chintzy mementos, presents bought too early and forgotten. Where did this cast plastic angel—Good Lord!—even come from? I stand akimbo peering into one closet and then the next, not sure whether to throw any energy at all into these lost causes, and entertaining silly fantasies of the Rube Goldberg devices they might make, these helter-skelter and precarious arrangements. I know that as soon as they are gleaming, veritably twinkling with order, grinning back at me in gratitude, someone will upend their organization, and by this time next year, oh the horror. But I am proceeding in the hope that rescuing our home from one year’s worth of shoving is certainly better than two. How did it get so bad? When did we stray so far from a place for everything and everything in its place? I used to deep clean one room per month, such a civilized plan in retrospect. But it feels so far gone now that my Honey Girl, someone who has a rather casual relationship with personal organization, suggested a kind of purging fire would be more manageable and appealing than trying to sort through it all.
It’s my Honey Girl, too, though, there to help. And I’ve realized that sometimes all you need is a helpmeet, someone on the sidelines saying, “So, what’s next on your list?” or, “Yes, donate. No, keep.” Someone who says, “Time for a break!” when you would keep pushing and should stop. Or who chirps, “Almost done!” when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. I can hear her, keyboard clicking, as she catalogues old games and DVDs and too-small coats online, and wrapping items sold in brown paper; a tall stack of them waits near the back door now to be mailed off. We’ve made a good team, balancing practicality and emotion. And it’s so effortless with such an aide to move forward when you might otherwise be stalled by memory or doubt: is keeping something because it triggers a memory a good reason to hold onto it, or has the item has so clearly outlived its useful life that it is time to pass it to someone who would find it useful now? I drift off often. But when I am motionless in indecision or dallying or lingering in memory, she stirs me, and I return the favor when she is at a standstill. Together we’re making our way through the house, closet by closet, cabinet by cabinet, room by room, one small decision at a time. When we’re finished, the house will be clean and smiling a house kind of smile. And for those ten minutes I want to eat this coffee cake and relish our work.
This coffee cake is gluten free. There is the little grit of the cornmeal in each bite softened by the lushness of the rhubarb compote, it’s impossibly light from the egg whites, and it is moist with a soft almond note. We have a coffee cake in our repertoire which is stellar, but since our Honey Girl has begun eating gluten free, this was an out-of-the-park first attempt at creating a coffee cake that she can enjoy too. That’s almost as exciting as the prospect of finishing our spring cleaning. Well, maybe not quite.
Rhubarb Compote-swirl Cornmeal Coffee Cake
Yield: one eight-inch square coffee cake; six to eight servings
½ c. unsalted butter, melted
1 ¼ c. confectioners’ sugar
¾ c. whole blanched almonds
½ t. baking powder
¾ c. cornmeal
6 egg whites
1/3 c. sugar
¾ c. rhubarb compote (recipe here)
- Butter an eight-inch square baking pan and preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter.
- In the bowl of a food processor, combine the almonds, cornmeal, confectioners’ sugar, and baking powder. Process until the almonds are finely ground, about one minute.
- In a medium bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they are quite stiff, about three minutes.
- Ever so slowly add the sugar. Beat for one additional minute.
- Add the tepid melted butter and beat gently to combine.
- Add the almond and cornmeal mixture in two batches and mix gently only until combined. Do not overmix.
- Spread the batter in the baking pan, and dollop the rhubarb compote on top. With a spoon, press down through the rhubarb compote gently to swirl it into the batter. Be gentle, as you do not want to deflate the egg whites. It only needs a little coaxing partway down into the batter.
- Bake the cake until it is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, about 30 to 35 minutes.
- Serve warm with more rhubarb compote.