It's a marvel really, that those short little side paths we wander down on our journey through life so often lead to the great adventures that practically define our future. But time and again, I've found that those unremarkable excursions prove to be more significant than first imagined.
Every spring, with the great sense of renewal and hope that comes with it, I'm reminded of that. And then my mind inevitably wanders back to an Easter vacation I took with my family many years ago. It was our annual week of camping in Yosemite National Park. But unlike the carefree trips of earlier years, my heart was heavy with all the uncertainties and woes of a college senior.
Most of all, I was dreading an upcoming organic chemistry final, but there were also the more broad concerns: Who was I really, and what the heck was I going to do with my life?
So, Easter morning found me down by the river, aimlessly skipping rocks into the lazy current and brooding over the unknowns in my future. At that moment I still remember how desperately I wished that I didn't have to leave this inspirational high country retreat which I had loved since childhood. We had just returned to our campsight from a Easter sunrise service and were supposed to be getting spiffed up for brunch at the Ahwahnee Hotel. My older brother tracked me down, and immediately sensed my mood. Instead of harassing me or telling me it was my turn at the wash basin, he planted himself on a nearby boulder and took up my rock-tossing activity.
"What's bugging you, Janet?" he asked gently as we watched our stones make three synchronized hops before disappearing beneath the river's surface.
When I told him a few of my concerns, and just how strongly I dreaded leaving the park the next day and getting back to real life, Don's response caught me completely off guard. He was, after all, one of the most stable and practical individuals I knew. With single minded determination, he had gone from college to law school and marriage, and was about to make partner in a prestigious San Francisco law firm.
"You know," he said, "summer's coming. When we go over to The Ahwahnee today, why don't you stop off at the front desk and ask the manager if there's a chance they'll be looking for help?"
It was too simple and direct of a thought to be considered life altering. And yet, my brother's suggestion turned out to be just that. I did go to work at The Ahwahnee after graduation. But what was to be one summer turned into two glorious years of work and play.
When I eventually left, I returned to the Bay Area and began my official career as a food stylist and recipe developer in a San Francisco test kitchen. But the experiences and friendships I had acquired during those Yosemite years have continued to nourish my soul to this very day. I have a deeper understanding of people after meeting and greeting the thousands of visitors I was paid to interact with. And I know, without a doubt, some of my best food stories I eventually came to write began at 10,000 feet above sea-level on the trails between Tuolomne Meadows and Yosemite Valley.
My life without Yosemite? I can't even conceive of such a sadness. Yet, if one intuitive brother hadn't taken the time to listen to his sister, none of it would have been. And so, every Easter I give thanks. For a good brother, and for all the little moments in our lives that are so much more.
The Ahwahnee Bran Muffin
At the Ahwahnee Hotel’s Easter brunch that year, I fell in love with a wonderful little bran muffin that was a part of their fabulous pastry tray. Once I was working there, I got to know the chef and eventually convinced him to share the recipe. I’d like to share it with you now.
These muffins are very tender in texture, with a fabulous flavor. But they don’t develop the full rounded top that you may associate with muffins, so don’t be concerned with that particular aspect of their character.
1-3/4 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup baker’s bran (see note below)
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Then, in order to make sure the baking soda is evenly distributed through the flour, sift the mixture again. Stir in the bran and set aside.
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer if possible, cream together the butter and sugar until light. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the honey and vanilla, then the buttermilk.
Add the flour mixture all at once to the buttermilk mixture, blend well, then continue beating for one full minute on medium or high. This step is different from most muffin recipes, but it’s important to continue beating for this full minute, because the cake flour - which is very low in gluten (as opposed to all-purpose flour) - needs to be agitated enough for the gluten to develop. The gluten is what helps the muffins attain good volume during baking.
Fill lightly greased muffin tins no more than half full and bake in a 400 degree F oven for 15 to 20 minutes; until cake tester comes out clean when a muffin is probed. Makes 24 muffins (using 3-inch muffin tins). If you have a set of mini-muffin tins, they can be used, but the baking time must be decreased accordingly.
NOTE ON BAKER’S BRAN: This is an unprocessed bran product, also known as "wheat bran." In the Pacific Northwest, yoiu’ll find a brand called Bob’s Red Mill Wheat Bran. Do not use any of the breakfast cereal products, they’re a different style of bran.