Fluffy Buttermilk Pancakes with Maple Glazed Bacon

buttermilk pancakes with peaches

The kids had a snow day today, so I decided to take a snow day too, and there is only one thing to have for breakfast on a snow day:  pancakes.

pancakes with Jersey butter & maple syrup

With lots of maple syrup and bacon.  And gallons of steaming hot coffee.  Mmmmm…

For the past couple years I’ve worked as a professional pancake maker at a bed & breakfast, which means that I’ve worked every weekend for the past couple years, which in turn means that I’ve made pancakes at least four days a week for the past couple years, but that my kids have very rarely had pancakes during that time since they are on their own at home most weekend mornings.  So, with this being a very snowy day, I knew making pancakes was the right thing to do.

and the snow continues to fall

I began by putting on the music of Spencer Lewis.  He is my favorite Vermont musician.  I have two of his albums, Gardener’s Rain and Lighter Than Fancy, and I think his music is the soul of Vermont made audible.  These two albums are all instrumentals, acoustic guitar and fiddle, and they are sublime.  It was his music that I used to accompany the slide show of photos of my father at his memorial service, but it is also the music I listen to when it’s raining in the spring and I want to just relax and enjoy the sound of the rain on the roof.

It happens that I have buttermilk in the refrigerator  today because I made Irish soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day, and while I do often have buttermilk on hand, I don’t always have it.  This recipe is just as good with regular milk as with buttermilk – either will work.  And although I would have preferred to have blueberry pancakes this morning, I didn’t have any blueberries in the freezer.  I considered making apple cinnamon pancakes, a favorite at the b&b, but opted instead for peach pancakes, to use some of last summer’s canned peaches.  You can use whatever fruit you have available, or none at all if you prefer, but regardless of which you choose, be sure add the cinnamon to the batter – it makes the best difference.

flour, eggs, milk, baking powder - basic pancake ingredients

My kids are big pancake eaters, so I always make a big batch.  The batter will keep overnight if you want to make it before you go to bed the night before you want to eat the pancakes, or, if you make a big batch today, the leftover batter will be fine to use tomorrow, if you want to have pancakes two days in a row.  The butter in the photo is locally made from the milk of only Jersey cows, so it’s yellower and sweeter than regular butter.

pancake batter with peaches

3 c. all-purpose flour

3 tbs sugar (better if it’s maple sugar, which is what I use at home)

1 tbs baking powder

1 tbs baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cinnamon

a pinch of nutmeg if you are adding peaches

OR

a pinch of cloves if you are adding grated apple

2 eggs

2 tbs canola oil (or melted butter if you want the bother of melting it)

2 c. buttermilk or regular milk, whole or skim (whatever you have around will be fine)

blueberries, peaches, grated apple, mashed ripe banana, or whatever fruit you like, if you want fruited pancakes

Whisk together the dry ingredients until they are well combined.  I like the flavor of maple sugar in the pancakes, but if you don’t have any, regular sugar will be just fine.  I always add cinnamon, even if I’m making blueberry pancakes, as it complements everything, including the maple syrup.  You won’t go wrong if you also add a little grated orange zest, since that complements everything too.

Lightly beat the eggs in the milk or buttermilk with the oil.  I used to use melted butter, but I finally realized that there is so little butter in pancakes that there is no flavor difference between using butter and oil, and rather than dirtying an extra dish and taking the time to melt the butter, I was just as satisfied using a little oil.

keep your batter lumpy & bumpy

Pour the liquids over the dry ingredients all at once and stir just until all the flour is moistened.  The batter should be very lumpy and bumpy.  The milk or buttermilk will begin reacting with the baking powder and baking soda right away and you will have lots of bubbles from the start.  If you need to add a little more milk or buttermilk to make a batter that you can spread on the griddle, go ahead and add a little more, trying to keep from stirring the batter too much.  Add the fruit by very gently folding it in with the ladle you intend to use to scoop to the batter onto the griddle.  It’s best to let the batter sit for at least five minutes before you begin frying the pancakes.  It can sit out for two or more hours without losing quality.

this pancake is ready to flip

I have a definite preference for cast iron cookware, and I always use a cast iron griddle when making pancakes at home.  My cast iron is well seasoned from years of regular use, so it’s all nonstick.  I never, ever use nonstick cookware, as I’m convinced it’s poisonous.  Electric griddles are good because the temperature is usually quite accurate (and they definitely don’t need to be nonstick), whereas on my electric stove it’s often difficult to tell when the griddle is the right temperature.  At the b&b, we set the burners on the new electric stove at 2.4 for pancakes.  This morning at home, I had one burner set to 2.5 and the other set to 3.0 since I discovered that they are not both the same temperature at the same setting.  It’s up to you to know your stove – you want the griddle to be hot enough that the pancakes don’t stick, but not so hot that they burn on the outside before the middle is cooked.  The pancakes are ready to turn when the top is covered in little bubbles and the outer edge looks dry.

the pancakes will rise more when they are turned

It’s best to flip the pancakes only once, although it’s better to have a second go on the first side if you’ve turned it too early than to have the pancakes be runny in the middle.  If you’ve added frozen blueberries and they’re still frozen when the pancakes go on the griddle, the temperature difference between the batter touching the frozen berries and the rest of the batter can be enough to make underdone portions in your pancakes, so it’s better to have your batter turn a little blue from thawed berries than to try to keep the batter light by using the berries when they are still completely frozen.

pancakes should cook up golden brown

The sugar added to the batter will help the pancakes cook up to a golden brown and add tenderness.

syrup dripping off a pair of pancakes

And really, pancakes are nothing more than a vehicle for maple syrup.

Currier & Ives plates - sugaring season

Even the picture on the plate is of sugaring – the sleigh crossing the bridge is hauling buckets of maple sap.

collecting sap the old-fashioned way

And since it was snowing this morning, and I was listening to Spencer Lewis, and I had some bacon in the freezer, I thought I would be remiss not to fry it up.  If you want to make maple glazed bacon, it’s the easiest thing to do.

This is thick-sliced, applewood-smoked bacon from North Country Smokehouse in New Hampshire.  It’s my favorite, after Singleton’s, of course.  I fry it in a cast-iron frying pan until it’s dark golden brown, and then I pour maple syrup over it, stirring it around in the pan until the syrup begins to boil.

thick sliced, applewood smoked bacon

After about a minute of boiling, I remove the maple glazed bacon to a platter.  Mmmmm….

maple-glazed applewood-smoked bacon

Thank God for snow days!

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Published in: on March 19, 2013 at 2:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Crunchy Maple-Walnut Granola (low fat)

crunchy maple-walnut granola

I’ve been working.  A lot.

I’ve made myself quite tired, in fact.

So I’ve decided to take a vacation.  By myself.  To visit friends.

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a vacation by myself – not since 2004.  And really, as anyone who has travelled with children knows, it’s not really a vacation if you’re travelling with children because they still need to be fed and cleaned and looked after, even if you’re not at home.  And if you’re not at home, they probably need feeding, cleaning, and looking after even more than usual.  So let’s just agree that I haven’t had a vacation in nine years.  That’s a long time.  But now my children are old enough to take care of themselves for several days while I’m resting.

Okay, I’m not really going to be resting, but I like to think of it as resting, as I won’t be working.  Well, not for money, anyway.  But the children won’t be there, so it will be something like resting.  And rest is what I most want to do.

But between now and this theoretical time of resting, I find there is ever so much more to do than there was before I decided to go away.  Things like making sure Anthony passes his driver’s license test (so he can drive to the store and buy milk while I’m gone), buying new shoes, and organizing all my digital photos.

If there really is so much to do, you may be asking yourself, why have I decided that now is the time to best time organize my photos?  Why not wait until I get back?  Surely organizing the photographs isn’t of the highest priority?  Well, very simply, I can’t fit any more photos onto my laptop.  It’s full.  To the rafters.  And although I’m going to London where I’ve been many times before (photos from which are a large part of what needs to be sorted), I am also going to be spending time time in the north of England, in Yorkshire, specifically in Leeds (where I’ve never been) and York (where I haven’t been for a really long time).  If I was staying only in London, I don’t know how many new photos I might take – probably not too many this time around, since I have quite a good album from my last visit (and this time I’m going without children!), but I will be taking many, many new photos in Yorkshire, and until I make some space for them to live, I won’t be able to do anything with them.  And of course I will want to share them right away, and so need to make space for them.

This is a time consuming project, cumbersome and multiphased, but it has three positive, predictable outcomes:  1. I have upgraded my Flickr account so that I can add an unlimited number of photos, making it a useful thing in my life; 2. I have upgraded my WordPress account so I can add more photos here and continue to post thoughts and recipes, as I had previously filled all the space that was available to me for free; 3. I can actually access my photos and make them available to do things with, such as produce books and cookbooks and greeting cards and calendars and such things as are done with photographs.  There might be additional happy byproducts of this organizational drive, but I am content to have these three already underway.

As I began going through my photographs, looking at the many that I’ve taken for this blog, I began to realize how much I’ve learned about photography while I’ve been working on it, and remembering how much I enjoyed creating this collection of recipes and remembrances.  It’s brought me back but with a renewed purpose:  not just to share recipes I like, but to consider a wider range of things, such as books, movies, lost domestic arts, the environment and sustainability, seasonality, and a delight in the little things of life.

That said, I do have a new recipe to share.

Did you know that granola is the new pink?  Or maybe it’s the new bacon.  There is bacon granola, or so I’ve heard.  Whatever.

I was reading about it in the New York Times recently, and apparently granola is the new big thing for chefs.  I didn’t know.  I feel so uninvited to the party.  But really, I live in Vermont, and granola has never been out of fashion in my lifetime, so the fact that it’s in fashion elsewhere makes everywhere else seem like the latecomer.

It’s been quite a long time since my last post, and part of the reason why I haven’t posted any recipes lately is that I had an unpleasant gallstone episode at New Year’s, and the advice I received at the hospital was to follow a low-fat, high-fiber diet until I can arrange to have my gallbladder removed.  I don’t really want to have my gallbladder removed, and since that was the first trouble I’d had with gallstones, and I’ve felt fine since, I’ve decided to follow the low-fat, high-fiber advice indefinitely, as that is a smart thing to do even without the encouragement of gallstones.  All the lovely cakes and scones that I was featuring here are not part of a low-fat, high-fiber diet.  And yes, I’ve made wholewheat scones, but they don’t produce that sense of luxury and self-indulgence as the ones made with white flour, and really, if I didn’t want to feel self-indulgent, I wouldn’t eat a scone.

As anyone who knows me will attest, bread is my very favorite food.  I love it fresh and I love it toasted.  I especially love it toasted with butter and jam, served alongside a cup of steaming hot tea.  It doesn’t get any better than that for me.  But, that’s not exactly low-fat, high-fiber either.  It can be somewhat, but not really.  So I’m trying to wean myself off the bread, and while it was easy to give up cheese and peanut butter, and somewhat easy to give up bacon and sausage, and I didn’t eat much red meat anyway so that wasn’t really like giving up anything, I have found that I really don’t want to give up hot buttered toast.  But I’m trying.  As an alternative for breakfast, I’ve been encouraging myself to eat more cereals.

Breakfast cereal is one of the most processed foods going.  I have an outright ban on processed foods in my house, and have had for as many years as I’ve had children, but wholegrain, low-sugar breakfast cereals never seem like processed foods.  But they are.  Some are definitely better than others at living up to their wholesome reputations, but trying to keep any in the house is impossible.  They are expensive, and there is so little in some of those boxes, that trying to have cereal for breakfast in the morning is costing too much and making lots of trouble.

So last week while I was searching the cereal aisle at the grocery store, trying to figure out what I should do, I saw a box of granola that I very nearly purchased.  It was maple-pacan granola, in a very tiny box, very expensive, and made in Oregon.  I live in Vermont, a very long way from Oregon.  We grow oats here and produce maple syrup here, so it didn’t seem right that I buy that overpriced box of oats and nuts when I could make my own granola at home from local oats and local maple syrup.  (Yeah, okay, the walnuts are from California – we can’t produce everything good here.)

I’ve made granola before with less than satisfactory results, and this time I decided that rather than following someone else’s recipe, I would start with the idea of what I wanted the finished granola to be, and reverse-engineer it.  It’s a good system, and I highly recommend it.

What almost got me to buy that box of granola in the store was the photo on the front of the large clusters of maple-coated nuts, enlarged to show detail.  As I began preparing my ingredients this morning, I decided that I didn’t want to have to enlarge my photos to show detail – I wanted the details to be large on their own.  And I wanted cinnamon, because I love cinnamon, and it’s warm and delicious.  I did not want coconut, because I don’t want that texture.  I wanted it mapley, and I wanted it crunchy, and I wanted it low fat.

I preheated the oven to 350 F, then I poured some rolled oats into a bowl.  I knew this was going to be about technique more than “recipe,” so I decided right from the beginning that I wasn’t going to measure anything.  I wanted to be able to just throw this granola together and get on with other things.

rolled oats

I bought some walnuts yesterday, specifically for this granola, since I like walnuts better than pecans.  I bought them in bulk from the co-op since they are fresher than most packaged walnuts in the grocery store (and less expensive).  I had a few walnuts left in the jar where I keep walnuts, so I poured the older walnuts onto the cutting board and then poured the new walnuts into the jar.  When the jar was full, I poured the rest of the new walnuts onto the cutting board and that’s how I decided how many walnuts to put in the granola.  (Sometimes decisions are just that easy.)

walnuts, as many as didn't fit the jar

I started chopping the walnuts, but it didn’t take long for me to tire of chopping walnuts, so thought to myself, “remember how that photo on the box had to be enlarged to show the texture?  Don’t be like that.  Stop chopping now, let the pieces be large.  This isn’t a tea bread or cake that you’re making.  It’s chunky granola.  Let it be chunky.”  So I did.

no need for the walnuts to be finely chopped

Then I turned to the cinnamon.

cinnamon, oats, and walnuts

I wanted the oats to be cinnamony, not the maple syrup, so I tossed the cinnamon onto the oats first, to dust them lightly.

cinnamon dusted oats

How much cinnamon did I use?  This much:

measuring cinnamon

I suppose I could have done a Justin Wilson and poured the cinnamon from my hand into a measuring spoon, but that would have defeated the purpose of the exercise.

this syrup is probably grade C; use the darkest syrup you can find

Then I tossed the walnuts with the cinnamony oats, and poured the darkest maple syrup I could find over it all.

a bowl of oats in maple syrup

Mmmm…

the oats awaiting transformation into granola

The oats and walnuts are coated with maple syrup, ready to go onto a heavily buttered, shiny baking sheet.

butter the baking sheet very well

ready to bake!

After I spread the oats and nuts evenly across the buttered baking sheet, I poured additional maple syrup over the oats in ribbons across the pan, but I did NOT stir.  I wanted the maple syrup to settle on the bottom of the heavily buttered shiny pan (this being the reason for the pan to be HEAVILY buttered and SHINY) where I trusted it would cook faster than the oats would toast, making little crispy candied bits which would contribute to the crunchiness of the finished granola and give it a more pronounced maple flavor.

additional maple syrup makes the granola extra crunchy

You can lick the bowl after you put the baking sheet in the oven.

mmm, maple syrup

I like glass bowls.

Glass bowls are pretty.

How long did I let the granola bake?  Until it was a fine golden brown.  I am aware that overbaking my granola has been a problem for me in the past, and having been reminded recently that granola always comes out of the oven soft, but firms up as it cools, I judged doneness based on the level of toasting of the walnuts rather than the crispness of the oats.  This was a good call.

the granola is done when the walnuts are nicely toasted and golden brown

Over the toasted granola, I sprinkled some raw wheat germ.

always use raw wheat germ

I read somewhere many years ago that toasting wheat germ destroys certain vitamins, and since wheat germ is full of goodness, including the sometimes hard-to-get-enough-of vitamin E, I make sure to follow that advice and always have my wheat germ raw.

And on top of that, I zested an orange, because I believe everything is improved by the flavor of orange.

everything is improved by a little orange zest

At this point, the granola has begun to cool just enough that the sugars in the maple syrup are beginning to set, so it is the right time to take a large spatula and gently lift the granola from the bottom of the pan so it isn’t stuck there forever but does make nice large crunchy chunks.  Don’t use a nonstick pan – please don’t ever use a nonstick pan – just don’t leave the pan to cool while you go off to do something else.  It needs your attention for another couple minutes, then you can go off and do what else must be done.

crunchy chunks of maple-walnut granola

the maple syrup that cooked on the bottom of the pan makes the granola crunchy

the granola has a nice toasted flavor

Anna is just home from school.  She tasted the granola (it crunched loudly) and said that it’s just sweet enough that it could be put over ice cream and topped with chocolate and that would make it perfect.

When I go away, I’ll leave a big bucket of this granola and a gallon of yogurt, but the kids will be on their own to magic up some ice cream.

Published in: on March 14, 2013 at 3:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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Tapioca Pudding with Fresh Peaches

This dessert is so heavenly light, I would like to call it Clouds with Peaches, but I don’t think many people would search for that, so I am going with standard phrasing in the title, but this is pudding is nothing close to standard.  This is not tapioca pudding like our grandmothers made.  It is not stodgy, it is not bland, nor is it entirely suitable for small children.

I may have given some of you the impression that I have abandoned this blog, not having made a post in over three months, but in fact, I have simply been too busy supporting my auto mechanic and my son’s orthodontist to have time to make anything lovely, let alone photograph it and then tell you about it.  It’s rather depressing to think about, so let’s not.  Instead, let’s talk about what to do when you forget that you bought a gallon of milk yesterday so you buy another one today, and then your son, who is normally good for a gallon of milk a day, goes to visit a friend for a week, and there those two gallons of milk sit in your refrigerator, forlornly wondering if anyone eats cereal anymore.  Yes, such purchasing errors do sometimes happen (it’s a sign of overwork).

Two gallons of milk have been sitting in my refrigerator for a week, and although the expiration date on them is still 9 days away, I’m not thoroughly convinced that they will actually last that long.  My son will be back tomorrow, which is good, because I still have a whole gallon of milk left, and now I have a gallon of brandied peach pudding that needs eating.

I have made tapioca pudding a couple times before, but it’s not something I do very often:  I like whipped cream on my puddings, but I don’t normally keep whipping cream in the house, so when I do think about making pudding, I usually keep on thinking until I get to something that doesn’t require whipped cream.  Today, however, I was at a loss with what to do about all that extra milk, and since it’s too warm to make corn chowder, I decided the time had finally arrived to use some of that large quantity of tapioca I bought about this time last year.  (Clearly I meant to make a lot of pudding last winter, but that’s another subject better not discussed.)

So having too much milk and a quart-jar full of tapioca, I made a double batch of pudding thinking to get rid of a double surplus.  And now my mixing bowl is full to the rim with this cloud-like tapioca pudding (the eggs were nice and fresh and the white expanded tremendously when they were beaten), and while I have no doubt that it will all be eaten in the next three days, I do not advise doubling the recipe for the general household not equipped with voracious teenagers.  Maybe if you want to feed everyone at the family reunion or you are hosting a large banquet, but it experience has shown that it makes substantially more than is suggested by the 1/3 cup of tapioca that is called for.

You can, of course, make this without peaches if peaches are not in season.  It is still delicious without them.

1/3 c. small pearl tapioca (large pearl tapioca can be substituted, but do not use instant tapioca; save the instant tapioca for thickening pie fillings)

3 c. milk

1/4 tsp. salt

2 eggs, separated (I happened to have extra-large eggs on hand, a contributing factor the lightness of my finished product)

1/2 c. sugar (I used raw sugar for the little extra flavor it gives)

1 large, very ripe peach, peeled and cut into small pieces (I used peaches from Pennsylvania, by far the tastiest and most reliably juicy peaches available in this area)

freshly grated nutmeg

vanilla brandy (or plain vanilla extract, if that’s all you have or if you want to share with young children)

Soak the tapioca in the milk for at least half an hour in a 2-qt, heavy-bottomed pot.  I was busy this afternoon and forgot I had started put the tapioca to soak, so mine ended up soaking for two hours.  That’s okay.  The longer it soaks, the less cooking time it needs, and that’s a bonus.  You can even let it soak in the refrigerator overnight (I have done this before when I have made pudding using the large-pearl tapioca).

Add the salt and the lightly beaten egg yolks to the milk and tapioca, and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly.  Reduce heat to low and continue to stir frequently.  When pudding begins to thicken and the tapioca pearls become transparent, beat the egg whites and sugar until the whites are thick and glossy and stunningly beautiful (a stand mixer is a great help at times like this).  The fresher your eggs, the better this meringue will be.

Add the peaches to the pot and grate a little fresh nutmeg over them.  Less is more in this instance.  Stir in the peaches and nutmeg, and then fold in the beaten egg whites, continuing to cook the pudding over low heat for another three minutes or so.  Remove the pudding from the heat and pour into a bowl.  Stir in a nice splash of vanilla brandy (or vanilla extract if that is all that’s available).

At this point you can either spoon the pudding into individual glasses or dessert bowls, or you can spoon it into a pretty glass serving dish, or depending on the availability of pretty glass serving pieces, leave it in the mixing bowl.  The pudding can be served warm or chilled according to your preference, and it is quite nice garnished with a wedge of fresh peach and a tiny dollop of whipped cream, although to be honest, it really doesn’t need it unless you are trying to impress your in-laws.

I have a wonderful zucchini-bread recipe which was given to my mother in the early 1970s by a woman who was in her 80s at the time that I’ve made twice so far this summer and am eager to share.  (It hasn’t lasted long enough to photograph, however.  The children really like it.)  I also have a new jam-making book that I bought last spring that I haven’t had time to work from yet that I would also like to explore in depth.  And somewhere I have a recipe for tomato jam (a savory condiment for sandwiches) that I intended to make this summer.  I need to find it, and hopefully while I’m looking for it, I’ll find that recipe for beet chocolate cake that I have been meaning to try.  If anyone has some spare time, please send it my way – I need a little extra.  Thanks!

Oh, and another thing:  while I was debating on whether or not to add the peaches to the pudding while it was on the stove, I thought about making chocolate tapioca pudding instead.  I almost did, and having thought of it, I am sure I have to try it since I still have most of a quart-jar full of tapioca.  I think it’s going to have orange zest and rum in it.  My grandmother never thought to make tapioca pudding like that either!

Published in: on August 23, 2012 at 7:54 pm  Comments (1)  

A True Story

I was 14 years old in the summer of 1983.  I spent that entire summer babysitting two little girls who were as pink and plump as piglets and their younger step-brother who was as lean and sun-browned as a maple sapling.  The family lived in a three-bedroom, single-wide trailer situated in a heavily forested valley several miles down a dirt road.  In addition to the babysitting, I was expected to do the laundry and the dishes and keep the place tidy.  I spent 50 hours a week there that summer, earning $50 a week for my time.

The parents were newly wed and as happy as only new lovers can be.  The children, however, hated each other with a fire and a passion proportionate to their parents’ love for each other.  I quickly realized there wasn’t much I could do to make peace between the girls and their step-brother, and it was very much a case of it being the girls against their step-brother rather than the boy against his step-sisters.  They had not only the advantages of size and age over him, but territorially, it was their house and he was an interloper, the fact of which he was reminded with alarming regularity.  He was, after all, from New Hampshire.  But if the house was theirs, then all the woods around were his, and he preferred to be constantly in the midst of a swarm of mosquitoes than be where anywhere near the girls.

It was, for the most part, a cool rainy summer, or so it seemed deep in the woods.  But even cool rainy summers have their occasional heat waves, and whenever one arrived that summer, it was all the more unbearable for the moisture stockpiled in the thick carpeting of moss that surrounded the little trailer in the woods.  One dark, overcast day, when I could bear the heat and the fighting no longer, I suggested to the children that we take a walk down the road and perhaps go wading in the brook.  The boy was naturally eager to go, the girls less so.  But figuring that anywhere was better than in that stifling trailer, we walked down the road, choking in a cloud of mosquito repellent.

The verdant roadside was lined with Queen Anne’s lace, buttercups, Indian paintbrushes, daisies, and other assorted wildflowers, many purple and white, all pushing up through the ferns.

We walked slowly, not being in a hurry to get to the brook, the children either dashing ahead or dragging behind me, the taunting and teasing continuing relentlessly.  When finally we reached a place where it seemed we could get down to the brook from the road, for the drop was quite steep in places, and where it looked as if the pool was deep enough to make wading possible, we clambered down, only to be driven out almost immediately by a choking cloud of mosquitoes undeterred by our repellent.

The girls, wearing their vindication like a crown, scurried back towards their bedroom and their Barbie dolls with all possible haste, the boy following with invective, ready to reclaim his outdoor fort, so that for a few minutes I was left on my own to observe the wildflowers and butterflies and listen to the sounds of the brook which was now out of sight.  Then, quite suddenly, from the depths of the forest came an old woman with a face as brown and wizened as an apple-head doll, and dressed much the same, in dark ragged clothes covered with a dark ragged shawl.

“I’ve been watching you,” she said, pointing a crooked finger at me.

If I have brought to your mind the wicked witch from Snow White, then you are thinking much as I did at the time.

“Your skin is very pretty,” she said, reaching out and touching my cheek.  “It’s smooth and soft,” she said.  At that closeness, I determined that she was somewhere between 150 and 200 years old.  “I’ve been trying to clean my face, but I can’t get the winter’s woodsmoke off it.  I rubbed it with Vaseline, but I can still feel the smoke, and now I can’t get the grease off either.  What do you use to clean your face?”  She pulled at her deeply creased cheeks as she spoke.

I was at a loss to understand how the winter’s woodsmoke could have been on her skin at all, but especially considering it was now the middle of summer, and at a greater loss to understand how she could have thought Vaseline was going to clean it.  I rather naively thought everyone washed their faces at night before bed, and was surprised to learn that she didn’t only not wash at night, but seemed never to have washed with soap.  I was only somewhat frightened.

“I use Dove soap,” I said, quite confused, yet certain that no soap was going to make her 200-year-old skin look anything like my 14-year-old skin.

“What’s it called?” she asked.

“Dove soap,” I repeated.

“I don’t know it,” she said, shaking her head, “but I’ll look for it the next time I’m in town.  Where can I find it?”

I could not conceive how she could not know of Dove soap, a product I believed had existed since the dawn of time, but I suggested she look for it at the grocery store.

“Oh, you think they’ll have it there?” she queried.

“Yes, that’s where my mother buys it.”

“Oh, your mother.  You have a mother?”

“Yes, I said.  She always buys Dove soap.”  I didn’t know where else to go with the conversation.

“You’re sure it’s called Dove?” she double-checked.

“I’m going to try it,” she said.  “Vaseline doesn’t work at all.”

And with that, she vanished into the woods just suddenly as she had come.

I didn’t want to be seen running down the road away from her, but began walking with much more purpose as the heavy clouds began to release the rain they held.  By the time I got back to the children, the thunder was cracking all around us and lightening was striking the ground.

Published in: on May 4, 2012 at 11:41 pm  Comments (1)  

Emergency Picnic Preparedness Plan

If you were expecting the unexpected, then you are probably prepared for this early spring.  In sharp contrast to last year, when it seemed that it would stay cold forever, spring came far earlier than I am able to comprehend, and by all measures, it is staying.  (Unusual, I know, but I report only what I see.)  And the greening of the grass naturally means I am thinking about picnics.

Last summer, I didn’t end up going on any picnics – not a single one.  I had my high hopes, of course.  (As you might remember, if you read my post on Spinach & Cheese Pie, I love picnics.)  And then in the fall I thought I would be able to sneak in one or two, but it was not to be.   This, however, did not stop me from continuing to collect picnic items from various antiques shops and on eBay, despite the fact that this activity was aggravating my desire to find a quiet field somewhere and take a nap in the company of a really good book. (Because really, picnics are as much about sleeping in the shade as they are about eating outside.)

One of the obstacles that prevented me from going on picnics last summer was my need for preparation.  If I can plan a day or two ahead, I can make the muffuletta, the chocolate chip cookies, the spinach & cheese pie, and certain other items that I make only for picnics.  But I took on a new job last summer, and although it often left me the time to picnic in the afternoon, I was too tired to plan the picnics, to make the bread for the muffuletta (because any other than the boule I make myself won’t do, nor will any store-bought tapenade be judged adequate: it must also be mine, as I make it), and to organize the lemonade, desserts, and fruits.  And I spent more time making pickles and jams last summer than usual, which also took up my picnicking time and left me too tired to pack the picnic basket – with what, I didn’t know.

You may be thinking at this point, that if I really do love picnics as I claim to, why would I not be more like my college roommate and just throw the peanut butter & jelly sandwich into a paper bag and go?   The answer is because I love picnics, not just eating a sandwich outside.  Some of my friends, good, kind, well-meaning people that they are, have been bold enough to suggest to me that aesthetics are not really so important, and they have further dared to suggest that I should lower my standards for the sake of having any picnic at all, as opposed to staying home and not having a picnic.  I, of course, then proceeded to work myself into a frenzy explaining that yes, aesthetics really are that important, and it is the aesthetic experience that differentiates having a picnic from eating a sandwich outside.

I suppose it’s a wonder that I have any friends at all.  Thankfully, they continue to put up with me, even if they don’t always understand me.

No, aesthetics are often what makes an event what it is.  For example, suppose you have some friends over on a Saturday afternoon, and you are sitting around chatting when you suddenly realize that it’s dinnertime and everyone is hungry, so you order a pizza.  When the pizza arrives, are you suddenly hosting a dinner party?  Your friends are having dinner at your house, presumably enjoying themselves, but is it a dinner party?  There is only one couple amongst my acquaintance for whom the answer could possibly be yes, since I know they stock sufficient wine, appetizers, salad makings, and dessert components that when combined with their wide array of glassware and natural conviviality, they are not only capable of hosting spontaneous dinner parties, but they done and will continue to do so.

Their ability to do this has not come about by accident.  It is not by chance that they can turn a pizza into a dinner party on a moment’s notice.  Most people cannot do this.

What I have therefore concluded after my picnic-less summer is that I need to have a plan – well, not so much a plan as an organizational chart – for spontaneous picnicking whenever the time and weather allow, with little more effort than packing a peanut butter sandwich.  This, I have determined, can be accomplished primarily through conscientious grocery shopping and keeping a few basic items always available.

As a rule, I keep quite a bit of produce in the house.  I always have carrots and celery and onions in the house, and garlic and potatoes, and usually spinach, leeks and cabbage, as well as apples and whatever other fruit is in season.  I keep oranges and grapefruits in the house from November to April, for whatever bearing that might have on summer picnics…  I try to keep my produce local as much as I can, I make a lot of vegetable soups, I serve beans and lentils as often as I can manage (my son does not hesitate to remind me that he is a carnivore and requires meat), but what this means is that I don’t have bright-colored vegetables in the house for most of the year – especially tomatoes and sweet bell peppers.  It also means that I don’t buy a lot of cucumbers or fresh green beans, and I seldom have fresh, local asparagus.  Or strawberries.  Or raspberries.  Or blackberries.  These have become very special summertime treats.

I have discovered, however, that the English hot-house cucumbers grown in Quebec are generally reliable (if not as good as a field-grown one), as are the hot-house tomatoes from Maine (same caveat as for the cucumbers), and since our growing season is so short, these are good alternatives to going without, even if they do stretch the definition of local a little further than I would like.

I am not one who likes cream cheese as a rule, nor do I like sour cream or mayonnaise or ranch dressing, but a small quantity of herbed cream cheese on a grainy bread with slices of either tomato or cucumber makes an excellent sandwich, one that travels well and provides maximum enjoyment when eaten on a picnic.  To make the herbed cheese, I start with a locally made cream cheese and add chives and parsley and other fresh herbs as are available, sometimes a little minced garlic or preferably minced shallot, a little salt & pepper to taste,  and then something to thin it a little, such as cream, sour cream, or my favorite, quark, a spoonable soft white cheese made locally by the Vermont Butter & Cheese Company.  Anything similar thing you like or have on hand will do.  I pack it in a small, wide-mouth jar, and it is always ready when I want it.

Eggs are another staple in my household.  I go through phases when I keep hard-boiled eggs in the refrigerator for lunches and breakfasts on the run, but having a few eggs already boiled for egg salad sandwiches during picnic season is a smart thing to do.  I mix a little wholegrain mustard into some mayonnaise (Hain Foods makes a safflower mayonnaise that I don’t object to overly much), stir in a little salt and pepper, and then I cut the eggs into small dice and try very consciously not to mash the egg yolks.  I fold the eggs into the dressing very carefully.  I am not making an egg paste.  The photo above is of a tea sandwich I made, but when taking egg salad on a picnic, I would be sure to put it on fresh brown bread, something sturdy and, to repeat, fresh.  I like watercress on my egg salad sandwiches, but watercress doesn’t keep well.  Spinach is a good alternative, but I will make a point of keeping more watercress in the house this summer.  It is also very good on cucumber sandwiches.

At the moment, my house is well stocked with canned tuna.  That won’t be the case a week from now, since the kids will be home all next week, but I can restock – and put a can or two aside for a picnic.  A lot of people worry about mayonnaise on picnics, but I don’t.  But then again, since I don’t like it, I avoid it whenever possible.  For tuna, I like to slice a red onion as thin as paper and marinate the slices in a little white-wine vinegar for 5 – 10 minutes, just long enough for the vinegar to take the sharpness out of onion.  I slice a section of baguette lengthwise (or a crusty roll, if I have one), flake the tuna onto the bread (I get very upset when tuna is creamed to a paste – tuna paste is very unappetizing), toss on some black olives, the prepared red onions, and a few slices of hardboiled egg.  I drizzle over it a little olive oil (if the tuna was packed in water), and some salt and pepper, and the result is a heavenly sandwich.

I regularly roast chickens, so there is usually roast chicken from which to make a sandwich – or chicken salad.  Ham salad is very good – popular with everyone in the family.  I use either a ham steak or a thick slice from a whole ham (but not sliced ham from a deli), and mince it, and then mix it with minced dill pickles, minced celery, wholegrain mustard, and just enough mayonnaise to keep it somewhat together.  I prefer it on the dry side, not the gloppy side.  And of course, salami, tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella on a baguette is hard to beat.  These are all things that easy enough to keep around.  And as for olive tapenade, it’s easy enough to chop my favorite green and black olives, mince garlic and parsley, add olive oil, lemon zest and juice and a little white-wine vinegar, and store it in a pretty Weck jar until I’m ready to use it.

And I recently found a recipe for a spicy tomato “jam” that I am eager to try.  That is the kind of condiment I can endorse.  (Look for the recipe in a future post.)

Yes, the more I think about it, the easier it seems to be.

I always have cheddar cheese, and carrots and celery sticks (boring and old fashioned, yes, but quite serviceable), and of course there are still pickles and dilly beans and such left from last summer.  And I do usually keep something sweet around the house, whether it is blueberry buckle or peach coffeecake (I have the post on that one ready to write – the photos are done – I just have to actually write it!) or zucchini bread or something similar.  Chocolate chip cookies are good, but they don’t last more than a few hours in my house (not that the cakes do either, but they are faster to make than the cookies).  I could, I suppose, bake some tart shells and keep them in the freezer, and then when the moment to picnic arrives, simply mix some fresh fruit with some jam (cherries in cherry jam, or peaches or blueberries with peach or raspberry or strawberry jam, for example – any combination will work), and fill the tart shells with the fruit and jam mixture.  These are excellent tarts I know from experience, and they don’t require cream which I would worry about spoiling.

My list of notes and picnic menu ideas is ever-growing.  I haven’t even broached the subject of salads yet.  And there is much still to be said about fruit.  And I haven’t forgotten the lemonade.  Lemonade is a whole post unto itself!  Yes, I see I have only just begun.  I am going to continue working on my picnic preparedness plan so that I can produce a real picnic at a moment’s notice and do much more than simply eat sandwiches outside this summer.  I am very excited about this – very energized.

I am anticipating a very picnicking summer!

Published in: on April 19, 2012 at 2:35 pm  Comments (1)  
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Blame it on the weather: things that might have been but weren’t

The weather the past couple days has been more than unseasonably warm, it’s been hot.  And not relatively hot, as in it was winter and now it’s less so, but hot, as in it’s too hot to turn on the oven.

I have been disquieted by the weather all winter.  Nothing has been quite right.  We haven’t been following our usual patterns – it’s been too warm.  For example, despite having stocked up on flour in the fall, I baked bread only once at the beginning of January.  I made three loaves as I often do.  I threw away most of the third loaf in February because nobody ate it.  I usually make bread every week and often we would run out of bread between baking days.  I still have a cupboard full of jams and jellies that no one has eaten because no one has wanted any bread.  And the corn I made a special point of freezing before the first frost?  It is all still in my freezer; it hasn’t been cold enough for us to want corn chowder.

To live life in Vermont is to be engaged with the weather.  The weather will not be ignored; it factors into all aspects of life and requires an active response from all inhabitants.  But this year, the weather was so mild, the snow so absent, that I wasn’t prepared for it.  I was prepared for blizzards.  Snow and ice I was ready for.  Temperatures at or slightly above freezing caught me by surprise.  I didn’t know what to do.  My response has been muddlement and confusion.

And it’s not for lack of consideration that I haven’t made a post in six weeks.  I have been trying – but work didn’t slow down this winter as it normally does, and I was unwell for most of February, and the kids have been busy and often out of the house (meaning they haven’t been here to eat), and it didn’t snow.  Of all these things, the lack of snowfall put me the most out of sorts.  Without snow, I lacked inspiration.

Here is a look at what might have been, had the winter weather been more wintry:

I made mince tarts at Christmas and again at New Year's but wasn't able to photograph the finished tarts, so didn't write the post. I thought I would make another batch, but I didn't.

I made orange-walnut banana cake three times since last fall.

As pretty as it was, I think I had too much banana in it - the texture was funny, so I didn't write the post.

I made some coconut cookies, but my original recipe called for pastry flour, and I was trying to find a substitute, since pastry flour can be hard to find.

Instead of being light and crisp, my cookies were hard and dense, so I didn't write the post; I will make them again with pastry flour and they will be lovelier.

I made baked beans according to my Aunt's recipe last fall, and while her beans are never mushy, mine were, and it hasn't been cold enough to bake beans again. (In fact, I still have some of that batch in the freezer.) So I didn't write the post.

The cinnamon rolls were good, but I didn't get a picture of the finished rolls, so I didn't write the post, thinking I would make them again and take the photo the second time around. But it hasn't been cold enough for me to want to bake more.

My grandmother used to make fig-filled cookies. I have been trying unsuccessfully to modernize her recipe (to eliminate the Crisco). The flavor is there but not the texture. I still have more filling, but I haven't had the motivation to work on the proportions of the dough.

These are the cups and plates I was going to use to photograph something very cherry-ful for Valentine's Day, but I wasn't feeling well and didn't bake. The cherries are still in the cupboard.

I made Election Day Cake for Town Meeting Day, but it took over nine hours to rise when it should have taken only two, so I thought I should make it again before posting the recipe. The cake tasted good, although it might have benefited from rising just a little while longer. And maybe it would be better with a little more sugar.

I bought this platter especially to photograph soda bread on St. Patrick's Day, but it turned out that both the kids were at friends' houses that day, and since I was home alone, I didn't bake anything at all. Neither did I cook any corned beef.

Here are some apples which I put on the pantry windowsill. It would normally be cold enough there to keep them well, but it wasn't cold enough to make me want apple crisp, so I didn't bake the apples, and they have begun to shrivel.

Normally I would fix my mistakes and correct my recipes and make everything again until I had it right, but this winter there wasn’t the motivation to do it.  Without the cold and the snow and the howling wind, I wasn’t particularly interested in spending my spare time baking.  It didn’t seem at all necessary or even desirable.  This is a most unusual situation, one I would never have anticipated or imagined possible.  I bake.  That’s what I do.  But not lately.

And now, with sugaring over, I am thinking I should make a lovely maple something or other, but I don’t really want one, whatever it might be.  My taste for it isn’t there; it’s missing with the winter.

While I haven’t minded lower heating bills, I have been thinking a lot about people who depend on the seasons for more than kitchen inspiration.  For many, the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene washed away much of the season’s produce – tens of thousands of pounds of vegetables (and many more thousands of dollars) were lost.  Then, with no snow, there was little revenue from plowing.  And now, with a short sugaring season and reduced maple syrup yields, I am starting to think that all three of these misfortunes have likely affected some of the same people.  To lose income from three seasons…

So I am left not knowing what to do.  I don’t know what I want.  I am unsettled.  I always base my choices on the season and the weather within that season and then match them to my interests of the moment, but I’m mentally stuck in the mud at the present time, just as I was literally stuck in the mud this morning.   (Fortunately there was someone right behind me who was able to pull my car out of the bog that was once called the road.)  I have a feeling, however, that practicality is going to overtake me sooner rather than later.  With all the flour and oats that I have on hand, and the dried fruit taking up space in the cupboard, and the fresh fruit that is on the verge of spoiling, I will probably be forced to start baking something – anything – just to use up my ingredients before it’s too late.

Maybe apple crisp with dried fruit and a cinnamon-oat topping?  But it’s going to be hot again tomorrow.  Will I want apple crisp on a hot day?  Not under normal circumstances.  But then nothing lately has been normal.  Oh, the indecision!

Published in: on March 20, 2012 at 11:25 pm  Comments (4)  

Raspberry Scones

Valentine’s Day is approaching.  This brings a tangle of complicated thoughts into my head.  On the one hand I love rose covered china (particularly certain iterations of Royal Albert’s Old English Rose (not to be confused with the same’s Old Country Rose pattern which is quite different) which I am currently stalking on eBay), I love fresh raspberry-colored roses, I love cakes decorated with icing roses, I love pink and white and raspberry colored ribbons, and making pretty paper valentines.

And as much as I love all that, and I truly do, if I think about it too much, I am entirely likely to begin thinking about how I have never experienced a romantic Valentine’s Day, and that will lead naturally into a catalog of disappointments, which will invariably end in feelings of bitterness and frustration, all of which I would prefer to avoid.

But then again, is not the failure of romance (with a lower case r) the right and proper stuff of Romance (with an upper case R)?  If Elizabeth Bennet was immediately attracted to Mr. Darcy, who was open and congenial from the start, and he proposed to her right away, there would be no story to tell.  (Certainly not one that would keep us interested for 200 years.)  And would we care so much about poor Jane Eyre if she came from a loving family and Mr. Rochester had no secrets hidden in the attic?

No, rather than wasting my time thinking about what might have been, perhaps it is better to steal away to one of little Johnny Keats’ secluded bowers and there share a cup of tea and piece of buttered bread with the Lady of Shallot.  Her days are numbered and I am sure she could do with a little tea and sympathy.  Perhaps we could convince dear Chopin to play a little for us afterwards.

Between now and then, however, I am planning a real Valentine’s tea party with living guests, so cherry and raspberry treats have been on my mind much as of late.

In fact, my visions of raspberries and cherries have been part of a larger color convergence that I have been experiencing over the past few weeks.  When did it start?  I can’t say definitively, but it does seem to have begun when I bought a cerise car at the end of December.

To begin at the beginning, I must return to my second-grade classroom and introduce you to my classmate Margaret.  I adored Margaret, for she could make me laugh unlike anyone else I knew.  And she did so all day long.  I was seated behind her, and she would turn and make faces at me or pass me silly notes or do any thing to make me giggle, which I did readily and with the honesty of a seven-year-old girl.  Our teacher regularly threatened to separate us, but I had no control over my giggling, no matter how dire the threat.

It was Thanksgiving time, and our teacher had visited Plymouth Planation the summer before, and was treating us to a slide show from her trip.  She had a terrible cold that week, and our classroom was heavy with the scent of Halls Mentholyptus cough drops.  Margaret, I can safely say at this time, was irretrievably bored by the Mayflower pilgrims, and was entertaining me more than the slide show was.  Our inattention finally drove the teacher to turn on the lights and distribute pictures of the pilgrims and the Native Americans for us to color.  Margaret asked to switch crayon boxes with me, and I agreed.

Certainly it is difficult to understand something that cannot be explained, but in Margaret’s crayon box, I found the most intriguing color red crayon.  Not a straightforward red, it was more of a deep raspberry color, not quite pink, with enough blue to be noticeable but not quite so much as to be purplish.  I was entranced by this color, and I was desperate to have the crayon – or rather the half crayon, because that is all that was left of it.  There was no paper label on it, so I couldn’t tell who had manufactured it or what name they had bestowed upon that color.  Innocent that I was, I didn’t think of stealing it.  Instead I asked where she had gotten it, what kind it was, where I could get one of my own.  She didn’t know, of course.  She was one of the younger siblings in a large family who had moved here from New Jersey.  She had a multitude of older brothers and sisters, so it is possible that the particular crayon I desired had been acquired long ago and far away.  The only thing certain was that it was not made by Crayola, the maker of my new box of 64 colors.

I asked Margaret if I could keep the crayon, telling her how much I loved the color and explaining that I had never seen another like it.  But Margaret, not being in the spirit of generosity that day, saw this as an opportunity for personal gain, and refused to part with it for less than my entire box of 64 colors.  I didn’t hesitate to trade away my new crayons, because I knew there were more boxes just like that one at the nearby department store.  My mother, however, did not approve of my dealings.  She could not accept that I would trade a whole box of new crayons for one old, worn crayon.  She made me trade back.

Since then, I have sought that color everywhere.  For many years, there was nothing at all made in that color.  (Think back to Miami Vice, Moonlighting, and LA Law:  did they ever feature anything a in deep raspberry red?  Not burgundy, not maroon, not wine, not dusty rose, but a deep, pinkish, raspberry red?  No, that was not a color of the 1980s.)  Then, several years ago, manufacturers started to produce an occasional item in that color – a ribbon, fine wool yarn, the lining to a cosmetic bag – but only occasionally, and always as unobtrusive accent.  Recently, more and more things have begun appearing in variations of that color, until I suddenly found myself in possession of some lovely little notebooks with deep raspberry red covers, tea cups and mugs with deep raspberry red flowers on them, three skeins of soft wool yarn to make a deep raspberry red wrap to cuddle up in, yards of deep raspberry red ribbons and fabric, and roses printed on a tablecloth.  I also bought a red-currant colored matelassé coverlet for my bed, and I discovered a piece of antique fabric in my collection that matches and is a fine fit as a tablecloth on the tea table in the bedroom.

Being surrounded thus as I am at the moment with all things raspberry colored, and it being the dead of winter with summer raspberries but a dim memory, it is not surprising that I experienced a strong urge for raspberry scones this past weekend.

I had extra teenagers at my house this weekend, so I made an extra-large batch of scones.  I am glad I did, because for all I made, I managed to get only one for myself.  This is a good recipe to make if you have guests for brunch or want to bring in a treat for your friends in the office or for your next book group meeting.  Or, better still, this will make enough for you to freeze some so you can have one anytime you want one.  This will make 16 large scones.

Raspberry Scones:

4 c. flour

2 tbs. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

12 tbs. butter (1 1/2 sticks)

2/3 c. sugar

zest of one large orange

3 eggs

1 1/2 c. whole milk or part milk and part cream

raspberries, partially thawed if frozen

Preheat oven to 400° F.  Butter a large baking sheet and set it aside.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.  With your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until it resembles fine crumbs.  Toss in sugar and orange zest.

Lightly mix together the eggs and milk and/or cream (you can use half & half or all cream, if you prefer; richness is desirable here), and then slowly pour over flour/butter mixture, tossing the dry ingredients with a large fork (a pastry fork works very well for this), just until all the flour is moistened.  You will have a very soft dough.

Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and flatten it slightly into roughly a 10″ circle.  Sprinkle lightly with flour and gently turn half the dough over on itself.  Flatten again and taking the dough from the opposite hemisphere, gently fold the dough over on itself again, lightly pressing the layers together to make another rough 10″ circle.  Spread the raspberries over the top of the dough and gently repeat the folding process again, pressing the berries into the dough without totally crushing them into juice.

Divide the dough in half, and form each half into a circle about 1 1/2″ thick.  Place the two rounds of dough on the baking sheet on diagonal corners, keeping in mind that the scones will rise quite a bit in the oven and giving them room to expand.

With a long, flat knife, or better yet, a bench knife, cut the rounds of dough into 8 equal portions by pushing the knife straight down into the dough and lifting it straight up again.

If you wish, spread a little milk or cream over the top of the dough and sprinkle with sugar or sanding sugar.  (I used coarse, sparkling white sugar.)

Place in the oven and bake until deep golden brown, about 20-25 minutes.

Soon your kitchen will be warm and smell of raspberries.

No butter or jam is needed for these, but a pot of Lady Grey or Darjeeling tea would be just perfect.  Or a large glass of milk.

 

 

Syrup-soaked Citrus Cake

I meant to make a quick little cake for teatime today, something light and bright and pretty to enjoy but leave me time to do other things, but I became so enamored of it (and all the colors of it) that I spent the entire afternoon photographing it and moving it in and out of the light, trying to capture its magic.  Needless to say, I didn’t get anything else done.  So I thought I had better write down the ingredients now, before I forget what went into this wonder.

It all started with a Moro orange that was mistaken for a regular orange and was consequently ignored and left to shrivel.

I meant to make a simple orange & lemon loaf cake, but when I decided to use that Moro orange for the glaze, not realizing what it was until I cut it, of course, it made the glaze such a bright, lovely color, that the normally delicious cake became irresistible.

I try always to buy organic lemons because I almost always use the zest, but this winter I have thrown away more lemons than I have used because they have begun spoiling as soon as I get them home from the store.  Even in the refrigerator, the lemons have been deteriorating rapidly.  I had only two little lemons that were unspoiled, so I decided to use the zest in the cake and add the juice to the glaze.  But since that wasn’t very much zest (or juice), I supplemented with the zest from a softball-sized navel orange.

For the cake:

1 c. butter

2 c. sugar

zest from two small lemons (or one large lemon)

zest from one large orange (or two small oranges)

2 tbs vanilla brandy (my favorite flavoring this winter)

4 very large eggs

1 c. whole milk

3 c. flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

For the glaze:

1 1/2 c. sugar 

juice of the lemon(s) and orange(s), the juice of a Moro orange if one is available, and the reddish juice of a Cara Cara orange, if one of those is available as well; include the juice of a clementine or two as well, for extra specialness

a little orange zest from one of the oranges whose juice is being used in the glaze

Butter and flour two large loaf pans.  Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Beat the butter with the sugar, orange zest, and vanilla brandy until light.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each, until the mixture is light and fluffy.

Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together, whisking well to combine.

Pour the flour mixture over the butter/sugar mixture, and then slowly pour in the milk while beating the two mixtures together.  Continue beat the batter just until smooth.

Divide the batter between the prepared pans.  Bake until cakes are well browned on top and test done, about 75 minutes.

While the cakes bake, make the glaze.  For this cake, I am using the term “glaze” rather freely; there is much more of this than would normally be considered a “glaze.”  There will be enough of the syrup to saturate the cake.  You can use as much or as little of it as you like.  I used it all.

I did not measure the amount of juice I put in, and it doesn’t really matter how much you have, only that the combined sugar and juice taste quite sweet and pleasantly of citrus.  I did measure the sugar, and I used the juice of two small lemons, one large reddish orange, one Moro orange, and one clementine.  This combination suited my taste for both sweetness and tartness.  I did not strain the pulp from the juice, as I wanted the candied orange bits.  I did, however, remove the lemon seeds.

The glaze must contain a high percentage of sugar in order to make a syrup that will soak into the cake and make it delightful, not simply wet.  Trying to reduce the amount of sugar without a corresponding reduction in juice will make a very light syrup that is too thin to glaze the cake and will make the cake soggy.

Bring the sugar and juice to a simmer in a small saucepan, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved.  Keep warm until the cakes are removed from the oven, then stir in a little bit of orange zest.

Remove cakes from the oven and place them, still in the pans, on a cooling rack.  With a wooden skewer, poke holes all over the cakes.  Pour approximately a quarter of the glaze over each cake and allow to cool for a short while.

When the cakes are cool enough to handle easily, remove them from the pans onto a serving plate.  Divide the remaining half of the glaze over the cakes, and allow to continue cooling.  The cakes should absorb all the glaze.

The cakes will be very tender and difficult to cut until they have cooled completely and are set.  Don’t let that stop you from having a slice while they are still just slightly warm.  It will be the perfect thing to have with a cup of very hot tea.

And here is the newest addition to my teapot collection:  an acorn.  I am very happy to have it.

I made a pot of Lady Grey tea to go with my citrusy cake and toasted teacakes.  It was a perfect accompaniment, although citrus and tea go so well together that any orange pekoe, Assam, or other black tea blend (such as English or Irish breakfast tea) would go equally as well.  I would, perhaps, avoid a heavy smoked tea (such as a Lapsang Souchong or Russian Caravan).

Published in: on January 29, 2012 at 11:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Teacakes

I can hardly believe January is almost over.  Usually, January drags on for half of eternity, but this year, it has sped right by.

I suspect, this has much to do with Facebook.  I am relatively new to Facebook, having been forced into it late in the fall.  I have not taken advantage of it to reconnect with my high school classmates (and I will do my very best to avoid doing so), but I have befriended several of my cousins who were previously quite distant and unknown to me.

I like that Facebook makes it easy to share photographs, but since I have never really known most of these cousins, I am often in a sort of Limbo; a Facebook exchange is no substitute for actually sitting down with any one of them and having a genuine conversation, so they have become more than strangers but remain somewhat less than actual friends.

Similarly, through my work, I met a woman who lives in California.  I have spoken to her a few times (at length on one notable occasion), and I think I like her very much.  She is easy to talk to, and we exchanged a variety of ideas and minor confidences.  We could become friends, I suppose, but we might not.  It is difficult to predict which way things will go.  As with my previously unknown cousins on Facebook, I have an idea of her, but that idea is largely untested and may be inaccurate.

I am unaccustomed to this sort of uncertainty.  When I first met Crystal, and later when I met Tamika, there was no hesitation, there was no question of would we or wouldn’t we be friends.  These friendships were instantaneous.  And they are enduring because no matter how much time passes between visits, we are able to pick up exactly where we left off as if only minutes had elapsed since we last spoke.

Crystal, Tamika, and Carol are among the people whose spirits I carry with me in my heart so that they are always present.  I have not experienced any such thing from a friendly (yet remote) “FB” acquaintance.  Thus, I find that the Facebook postings require deciphering, and it takes time to distill meaning from them, if there was any meaning in them to begin with.  Factoring in the time this takes, I think it accounts for much of the speediness of the month of January.  So far, the majority these postings have not been proven to be “value-added” communications.

I would prefer it if they could come over one or two at a time and spend an afternoon talking about things that matter to them over a plate of toasted teacakes and a lovely citrusy syrup-soaked cake.  And a large pot or two of tea, of course.

And perhaps a plate of crunchy coconut cookies for contrast:

Sharing a cup of tea would be every so much nicer than a status update about the weather in Ohio.  Or the traffic there.

This recipe is adapted from a book I bought in England (Afternoon Tea Parties by Susannah Blake), so the measurements are given mostly by metric weights.  The recipe works, so I am not making any mathematical conversions to keep it that way.  For anyone who doesn’t already own a digital kitchen scale, I highly recommend purchasing one.

225 g all-purpose white flour

1/2 tsp fine sea salt

1 tsp instant yeast OR 2 tsp regular yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water

15 g soft brown sugar

1/2 medium-sized whole nutmeg, grated

60 g (or a little more) “mixed dried vine fruits”  (I used a combination of equal parts red “Cheri” raisins, golden raisins, and small black “Flame” raisins for this batch, although any similar combination works well.  I would have included currants if I had had any in the cupboard.)

zest of one large orange

40 g butter

120 ml whole (full-fat) milk, plus a little extra to brush on the tops of the rolls before baking

butter, to serve

Combine the butter and milk in a small saucepan and heat just until until butter melts.

Mix together the dry ingredients (including the instant yeast, if you are using that, or with the dissolved regular yeast).  When the milk and butter are quite warm but not hot, add the liquid to the dry ingredients to form a soft dough.  Turn onto a floured work surface and knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.

Allow the dough to rise in a buttered bowl until doubled, usually 1 1/2 – 2 hours.  Divide the risen dough into 8 equal portions and shape each one into a small ball.  Place the shaped dough on a greased baking sheet a couple inches apart and flatten slightly.

Allow the teacakes to rise again until doubled, anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen.  Preheat the oven to 400° F.  Brush the tops of the teacakes with a little milk (or light cream, if you have some) and bake until golden brown.

The fresh teacakes are delicious right out of the oven, but they are traditionally served cut in half, toasted, and buttered.  My reading all confirms that they best toasted on a long-handled fork over an open fire, but since I don’t have either the toasting fork or the open fire, I use my toaster oven, and that works well too.

It’s worth making a double batch to share with your friends.  It will show them that you really do care.

Published in: on January 29, 2012 at 9:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chocolate Bread Pudding

ice formation on my living room window

Arctic air mass.

sunrise as viewed through my icy window

I like the words “arctic air mass.”

sunrise as seen through the ice on my living room window

Of course, I don’t actually like the arctic air mass itself, and one is moving in rather rapidly.

sunrise viewed through the ice on my living room window

Cold is one thing, frigid is something else altogether.

afternoon sunshine as seen through my icy kitchen window

afternoon sunshine through my icy kitchen window

silvery afternoon light through my icy kitchen window

That, by the way, is not a complaint.  I am not allowed to complain about the cold because I complain constantly about the heat all summer.  I figure I can want it one way or the other, but I can’t want it both.  I choose cold weather over hot weather every time.

sunrise through icy window

I haven’t started watching the second season of Downton Abbey yet.  Last spring, one day when I was feeling ill, I found the first season of Downton Abbey available for streaming on PBS.org.  I made a batch of apricot scones and a large pot of tea, and sat down to watch all four episodes in one go.  I couldn’t have stopped watching if I tried, but I had no desire to try.  I devoured the program and I felt ever so much better when it was over.  So this time, I know to wait for all the episodes to be available before I begin; I can wait a few more weeks to see the second season, but I couldn’t wait a week in between episodes.  I don’t have that much stamina.

The New York Times published a feature on the books that people are reading while they await their next Downton fix.  One of the books on the publishers’ list of recommendations is Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford.  I have been looking for a suitable used copy of the book for quite some time but haven’t found one locally yet.  The DVD of the televised version of it, however, made it to the top of my Netflix queue, so I have that to watch this weekend.  It seems wildly appropriate for the atmospheric conditions.

I just put three loaves of lovely beige whole-wheat bread in the oven.  I designed it specifically to be particularly receptive to peanut butter, composing it primarily from white whole-wheat flour, brown sugar, and milk.  And I bought a fresh jar of Teddy peanut butter too.  Tomorrow I am going to have a really good peanut-butter sandwich.

Tonight though, I’m going to watch my movie after I take the bread out of the oven.  In the meanwhile, here is a little something that will make the approaching arctic air mass a little easier to live with:  chocolate bread pudding.

Bread pudding is one of those things that is fabulous no matter what you put in it, and it is great for using up those little bits of leftover things that need to be used before they spoil.  You can put in whatever you have on hand.  Apples and raisins are traditional (and delicious), but sometimes I like to mix it up a bit and put in spinach and mushroom and cheddar cheese instead.  You really can’t go wrong if you keep your sweet and your savory a respectable distance apart (meaning don’t put cinnamon and spinach in together).

I like to use cranberry-walnut sandwich bread when I make chicken sandwiches.  I made some in the fall, intending to write a post about it, but time got away from me as it so often does, and I stuck half a loaf in the freezer so I could do it “later.”  Then I bought several bags of cranberries when they were on sale and stuck those in the freezer too, apparently on top of the bread.  I spent the next several weeks thinking that whole pile in the back of the freezer was cranberries, but to my great surprise, this week when I took out some cranberries to make cranberry sauce, I found that half loaf of bread.  It cried to be made into bread pudding.  How could I resist?

Before Christmas, I bought two bags of oranges and some pink grapefruit.  Then I was given some red navel oranges.  Then I bought some clementines.  Then this week I bought some Moro oranges and some white grapefruit.  In between, we had (literally) a bushel of apples.  Needless to say, some of those first oranges (having rested in the refrigerator all this time) are reaching the end of their allotted time on earth.  And because oranges have such an affinity for chocolate, I thought a little orange zest in the custard would be quite welcome.

And let’s face it: it’s not chocolate bread pudding without chocolate.  I have seen recipes that call for the chocolate to be melted into the milk so that the whole of the custard becomes chocolate, but I like to have chunks of melted dark chocolate in my pudding, so I leave the chunks quite large.  And since the bread had cranberries in it, I thought the pudding could only benefit from the addition of more dried cranberries (also delicious with chocolate).

In a great confluence, I also had extra milk and eggs (a rare thing to be sure).

So as not to impede the spontaneity of the pudding, it is best not to give exact measurements.  The idea is to use up stock on hand, so whatever you have is what you will make.  My half loaf of bread filled my medium sized souffle dish perfectly, so that is how much pudding I made.  Sometimes I have far more bread collected in the freezer, and I fill a much larger baking dish.  Use what you have.

As for the milk-to-egg ratio, it is quite flexible.  Generally speaking, I use one egg to one cup of milk, but if you have only 3 eggs and need 4 cups of milk to cover the bread and assorted bits in your dish, then it won’t suffer.  The same applies if you have a few leftover egg yolks.

Sugar is added to taste.  For a quart of milk with four eggs, I might put in half a cup of sugar, or maybe a little more if I am not using chocolate.  (Use no sugar at all for a savory pudding, but do use half a teaspoon of salt and some pepper and herbs to complement the greens, cheese, and other vegetables.)  The sugar can be white or brown, depending on your intentions.  Both are good, but the brown sugar will provide a more pronounced flavor.  This can be desirable depending on what else you are putting in.  This time, knowing I already had chocolate, orange, and cranberries, I used white sugar so as not to add a competing flavor.

That said, do add a little vanilla, or better still, vanilla brandy.  I put in a couple generous tablespoons of vanilla brandy, and I could have added a little more still without it being too much.  Vanilla brandy loves bread pudding as much as I do.

In preparing the bread this time, I was in a rush, so I cubed it.  That was a mistake.  I should have take the time to tear it as I usually do.  The torn edges of the bread will readily coalesce with one another, making a solid, sliceable pudding when it is cold.  When the bread is cubed with perfectly straight edges, they cubes stay as cubes, and the texture of the pudding is adversely affected. Next time I promise to take more time and cut slices and then tear them into bite-sized pieces.

Butter your baking dish well.  Toss together the torn bread, chocolate, and cranberries.  Lightly beat the eggs into the milk.  (Whole milk will make a richer, more delectable pudding, but use any milk you have, particularly if it a choice between using almost-sour milk today and pouring spoiled milk down the sink tomorrow.)  Stir in the sugar and then add the vanilla or vanilla brandy to the milk mixture.  Stir in the finely grated orange zest and grate a little fresh nutmeg into it too, if you have a nutmeg hanging around.  It ties the whole thing together.

Pour this milk mixture over the bread, making sure all the bread is covered (add a little more milk if you misjudged it; it is okay to just pour it over the top until you have as much as you need) and allow the bread to soak up the custard for a half hour or more.  It is not necessary to refrigerate the mixture during this time.  If you are preparing it a day ahead, however, it should be refrigerated, but if you are baking it in the very near future, it is fine at room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 325°F.  My mother always used to bake bread puddings in a water bath, but I had trouble finding the right sized pans to do this with, particularly when I was making a lasagna pan full of bread pudding, so I gave it up.  You can if you want to and know you have suitable pans to do it.  Otherwise, it will come out quite nicely just baked by itself on the oven rack.

The length of time you bake it will naturally depend on how large your dish is and how many eggs you put in the custard.  You want the crust to be deep golden brown and the center to be set.  If the top looks done, but the center is just a little runny still, it is usually okay to take it out of the oven and let it cool; the center will firm-up as it cools.

This is a wonderful addition to any brunch, or as a breakfast on its own, or a warming snack.  It might be a little heavy for dessert, unless you have a very light meal, such a vegetable soup.  But any way you eat it, it will bring warmth and enjoyment into your day.

Published in: on January 14, 2012 at 10:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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