Thursday, September 22, 2011
Zen And The Art of Beekeeping
I've been keeping bees since I was a teenager. That was 20-plus years ago, and still they amaze me. Of course the honey is great. I collect several gallons each September, enough to last all year. But it's the sounds the bees make that I find captivating. There's no guessing game with bees. If they are happy, you'll know. If they are upset, you'll know that, too. They are very good communicators.
In the beginning, before I learned to listen to the bees, I got stung a lot. Once, I almost died. I should have known better; I should have been listening. The bees "sing" to you or they "scream" at you, and when they scream they sound like banshees. The buzz of 80,000 angry bees' vigorously vibrating wings sounds, well, just like you'd think it would. Their pitch rises when they're upset. It sometimes gets to the point where all you can hear is bees, screaming with their wings. This pandemonium is dotted with tiny staccato pops, the punctuated landings of a thousand angry workers dive-bombing your beekeeper's veil. It can be scary. But it doesn't have to be.
If you've ever met any beekeepers, you've probably noticed how calm they tend to be. The bees pick up on a peaceful personality. If I am calm, so are they. Some of us are naturally placid. Not me. I had to learn it. It took years.
The first trick I tried was singing to the bees as you might to a baby, in a calm, soothing tone. I didn't sing an actual song, just gibberish, but it worked. The bees stayed calm and I didn't get stung.
I didn't know it at the time, but bees don't have ears so they don't "hear" in the sense that we do. My singing only calmed me, and the bees felt my tranquility. I still sing to them. I have not been stung in more than 15 years.
This week I collected honey from the hive, and to celebrate the harvest (and National Honey Month--woot! woot!) I made this simple honey cake. It was a busy day and I had to carve out enough time to bake. With flour all over the kitchen and deadlines looming, I was feeling somewhat stressed. Mixing the ingredients, I caught myself humming a little made-up tune, just to relax. It worked in the kitchen, just as it does at the beehive.
Honey Walnut Cake
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour plus more for pan
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 cup honey
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup walnut halves or pieces
Creme fraiche and fresh fruit for serving
Arrange a rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9x9x2" baking pan.
Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.
Using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl until pale and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well, then beat in honey and vanilla. Add flour mixture and milk in alternate batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until just combined.
Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth the top, then sprinkle with walnuts. Bake until a tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 45-55 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack for 1 hour. Transfer cake to a cake plate. Serve with creme fraiche and fresh fruit.