Sunday, December 30, 2007

Funky town

Sometimes, for no good reason, a headache will just take me down to funky town. My funky town looks like this: I can't stand odors, can't take light, don't like food, and worst of all, can't read without it hurting. The strange thing about this headache was that it wasn't triggered by anything--no stress from yelling at kids, no excess of alcohol, no insomnia to blame, just a wicked headache that resisted 1. ibuprofen 2. caffeine 3. Tylenol 4. a blissfully quiet house with kids over Granny's 5. fresh air obtained via hour long walk.

Finally I just had to lie down and give in to the damn thing. And after about two hours of that (go ahead and hate me for having the opportunity to lie down for two solid hours) headache receded enough to let me read. I have to say, the worst thing about these headaches is how damn boring they are so once I could read again, I felt a little more normal (though food and noise still don't seem like a good idea).

The hardest thing about this trip to funky town was I was in the middle of a really good book, so the borning-ness of lying there for two hours was intensified.
But once tracking words across the page didn't make me feel like a firecracker was going off behind my eyes, I was able to finish the book, An Abundance of Katherines. This is a charming YA novel with really terrific dialog between the two main characters, Colin, a former child prodigy, and his best (only) friend, Hassan. At times their banter reminded me of the scenes in the movie Knocked Up which so perfectly captured the grossness and affection of immature males--lots of references to their balls, weird nick names (including one of my favorites--sitzpinkler--a German insult for a man who sits to pee), but underneath it all, genuine caring and friendship.

I was amused by Colin's obsession with creating a mathematical formula to describe all of his past (and, he thinks, future) romantic fiascoes. And I like a good road-trip buddy story. But what really got me was the way Colin and Hassan's friendship was expressed and how they blunder around in the undefined post high school period trying to figure out who they are and what they should, could and would do with their lives. There's a little bit of preachyness at the end of the book about personal responsibility and taking care of your fellow man, but when I consider the intended audience (i.e. not me) I think it is a mighty fine idea to plant in the heads of young readers.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Brown blobules

Along with all the granola I've been churning out (I think I've made 8 batches in the past week), the puppy biscuits and the biscotti, I've also made some delicious misshapen brown blobs:
I used this cardamom truffle recipe and substituted lavender for the cardamom. Then today I made a batch with orange zest and a little triple sec. They taste great, especially the lavender ones, though I don't quite have the hang of getting them into a round shape--I tried a regular spoon, I tried a melon baller, I tried a very half-spherical tea spoon but only got a few with a reasonable curve to them. So mine are "rustic" if you are feeling nice, and "lumpy" if you aren't feeling so nice.

I also made some inedible brown blobs to accompany some inedible noodles:
My Flying Spaghetti Monster Tree Topper was calling for an offspring. It's lonely being the only deity on a tree so here you see the yarny momma (poppa?) reaching its noodles down towards its new clay ornament buddy.
The Fimo meatballs turned out much more spherical than my truffles, but then polymer clay doesn't melt in your hands when in the process of being rolled. After making truffles though, you have a fine excuse to lick your palms, which I don't recommend doing after rolling polymer clay. Keep your brown blobules straight so you don't eat the wrong ones!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Biscuits for canine and human

We've revved up the Granola Factory for our gratitude gifts to those adults who have a positive impact on my intense (code word for pain-in-the-butt) kids. The granola we gave last year was so warmly received that I decided it'll be our holiday tradition and that also means that I don't have to fret about what to give people. With the rest of the stresses in my life, going on automatic granola pilot is a welcome relief. This year we are making an apricot almond variation.

In addition to the granola, we are also making homemade dog treats. One of Ian's teachers who has been really incredible with him and made this school year a good one also trains dogs for the sport of flyball. When I mentioned to my psychologist sister that a person who can train a dog to run an obstacle course can also train my son to conform to expected standards of behavior for 7 year olds, she said that a major book of (human) behavioralism is titled Don't Shoot the Dog! I checked it out of the library and it is a testament that a positive experience in pet ownership is a good sign that you can take being a teacher or parent. Often I think maybe I should have had one more dog to practice on before being allowed to train these small humans...
We made some peanut butter biscuits this weekend and tried them out on various friends' dogs (you know, to make sure we don't kill the teacher's dogs...) and they were consumed by both picky-eater dogs and dogs who would happily eat cardboard.

There's something about making a tooth shattering biscuit for dogs that got me craving biscotti. I don't plan to shatter any of my teeth since I dunk them in my latte, but I forgot to tell Brian that dunking was a necessity so he endangered his dental health when he first tried them.

I made two batches of Almond Orange Biscotti. The first batch was based on a recipe from a friend which was a bit like this recipe and the second batch was based on this recipe (both from Joy of The main differences in the two recipes are how the eggs are handled and where the sugar goes. In the first recipe, the sugar goes into the dry ingredients and in the second it gets beaten for 5 minutes with the eggs. I found the second dough much easier to work with--the sugar had been dissolved into the eggs and thus the dough stuck together more easily. The first recipe tasted fine, but was a pain to form into a log and didn't cut so neatly.
Batch #2 after its first baking
and after slicing and its second baking.

Biscotti are also a welcome culinary break from all the richness of Christmas baking--there's no butter, they aren't very sweet and the copious quantity of almonds makes them a a good blood sugar stabilizer in the early afternoon when I usually start to droop.

Almond Orange Biscotti
adapted from Joy of Baking’s recipe for Pistachio Cranberry Biscotti

2/3 cup white sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup, raw almonds (skins on—-not blanched) toasted and chopped coarsly
Zest of 2 oranges, about 1 1/2 T

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and place the oven rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.

In the bowl of your electric mixer beat the sugar and eggs on high speed until thick and pale, about 5 minutes. The mixture will form slow ribbons when you lift the beater. Beat in the vanilla extract.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and orange zest. Add to the egg mixture and beat until combined. Fold in the chopped almonds.

Transfer the dough to your parchment lined baking sheet and form into a log, about 12 inches long and 3 1/2 inches wide. Use a dampened silicone or rubber spatula to nudge the dough into the log shape—-the dough is very sticky.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until firm to the touch. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes. Transfer the log to a cutting board and cut into 3/4 inch slices. Place the biscotti, cut side down, on the baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes, turn slices over, and bake for another 10 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool. Store in an airtight container.

Makes about 16 - 20 biscotti.

Peanut Butter Puppy Biscuits
adapted from this recipe

1/2 C Safflower oil -- no substitutes
2 Eggs
3 T Natural Peanut butter
2 C Whole wheat flour
3/4 C Unbleached white flour
1/2 C Cornmeal
1/2 C Rolled oats
Additional flour

Mix water, oil, eggs, peanut butter, and vanilla with a wire whisk. Add flours, cornmeal, and oats.
Combine with a mixer. Take one-third of the dough and place on a floured surface. Flour top of dough and gently knead, adding more flour as necessary to form a pliable dough (This will require a substantial amount of flour).

Roll out to 1/2 - 3/4 inch thickness and cut shapes using cookie cutters.

Place on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake 400 F, 20-25 minutes, depending on thickness of biscuits . Leave in oven 20 minutes after turning oven off to crisp.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What 2-buck-chuck was made for

Mulled Wine!

I'm not the biggest fan of egg nog. Once in a while a little bit of it amply fortified with whiskey tastes good, but most of the time egg nog is too rich for me. I feel like I'm drinking creme anglaise and while I like creme anglaise in its proper place (that is to say, accompanying a dessert), I don't choose it as a beverage. Mulled wine is much more my kind of holiday beverage and it also serves to scent the whole house with its spicy bouquet. The Williams Sonoma stuff is a good lazy-person's alternative to digging around in the spice cupboard to locate the appropriate items, but it is pretty darn simple to assemble your own. Some cinnamon sticks, allspice berries, cloves, ginger slices and a star anise or two if you are feeling exotic combined with the wine, some sugar and citrus peel can be combined in about 5 minutes. Some people also add brandy, but since I like to sip mugs of this stuff all day long (on the weekend--I try to stay sober when weekday responsibilities are involved) I leave the brandy out or else I'd be, as the Brits like to say, blotto.

Yesterday, while on my third (or fourth?) mug of wine I sat down and finally finished sewing this totebag as a Christmas gift for my dear sister:
On the front are three of Fiona's little alien drawings that I embroidered. From left to right they are Momo, Mi and Fomi. Mi is my favorite. And inside is a soft doty flannel lining:
I'm going to send it to her with some chocolates, nice lavender soap, orange and almond biscotti (recipe to come soon) and homemade peanut butter dog biscuits for her darling Basenji, Theo (another recipe to come soon).

Mulled wine

One bottle of cheap dry red wine
1/3 C sugar
2 T of spices--lots of whole cinnamon sticks and whole allspice, some whole cloves (not too many--those little buggers are strong), slices of fresh ginger, a star anise or two if you are feeling exotic
strips of lemon and orange peel
1/2 C of brandy (optional)

Put the spices in a large tea-ball or tie loosely in cheese cloth. Heat up the red wine, sugar, spices and peel until steaming. Let spices steep for at least 20 minutes--remove spices and peel after about an hour (it'll get
really strong if you forget and leave the spices in, in which case you can dilute it down with another bottle of wine and some more sugar). If you don't plan on sipping this all day long and want it to pack more of a punch, or if you want a more intense day-long buzz, then add the brandy too.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Oh, you little tart

For me the Christmas holiday season isn't about cookies. When I was a kid we made some cut out cookies and decorated them, but they tasted like shoe leather and the eating was never as fun as the decorating. With a British mother, the Christmas flavors that dominated our house were fruit cake, Christmas pudding and mice pies. While I like the first two items, it is the last one that I am just wild about.
Right after Thanksgiving I was hit with the urge to bake mince pies but I hadn't planned ahead and didn't have any mincemeat on hand so I had to scare up the ingredients and make up a batch. Mine is meatless mincemeat--I'm sure the kind with beef suet is also tasty, but it is a damn sight easier to make the vegetarian kind and then you also won't freak out your friends when you offer them your little tarts. The mix of flavors is pretty complex: there's the dark richness from all the dried fruit and spices like cloves and nutmeg; there's the bite of citrus, both with fresh and candied peel; there's the underlying familiarity and sweetness of the apples which is offset by the sharpness of the vinegar and keeps the whole combo from being too cloying.
This mish mosh of a recipe is very loosely based on a version in the Fannie Farmer Cookbook which, incidentally, is the basic cook book out of which I learned to cook. Some people have fond memories of Better Homes and Gardens, or Joy of Cooking, but I'm a Fannie Girl (which is also pretty fun to say--Fannie Girl, Fannie Girl!) The recipe also makes a hell of a lot (though you'll need a couple of cups to go in the batter if you are making a traditional English fruitcake) and will keep forever. My mom is making her mince pies from some mincemeat that she made last year and kept in the fridge. There's a glug of brandy in it to (hic!) help preserve it and the acid from the cider vinegar also fights off nasty bacteria. I suppose you could use up a lot of it by making one massive mince pie, but I like a higher pastry to filling ratio to offset some of the intensity of the mincemeat and besides, the little tarts are so easy to grab and stuff in your mouth before anyone notices.

The pie crust I used was the Cook's Illustrated Vodka crust I mentioned before Thanksgiving. I think it is by far the easiest crust to work with--sturdier than my normal crust though still very flaky. It is the first time I've successfully used a food processor to make pie dough--all the other times I tried it turned out tough and nasty--and oh what a pleasure not to have to pick out bits of dough from around my fingernails for hours afterwards.

(Meatless) Mincemeat

1 1/4 C raisins
3/4 C golden raisins
1 C dried currents
5-6 small, or 4 large tart apples, peeled, cored and chopped small
1 navel orange, peel removed, fruit chopped small
1 lemon, including rind, chopped small
1 C candied citron
1/2 C cider vinegar
1 1/2 C dark brown sugar
1/2 C white sugar
1/2 t salt
1 t cinnamon
1 t nutmeg
1 t ground cloves
1 t vanilla
glug of brandy

Simmer everything except brandy in a big pot over low flame until well combined and the apples have softened. Take off the flame and stir in brandy (about a 1/4 cup or so). Keeps in the fridge for ages.

To make into Mincemeat tarts, take your favorite pie crust recipe and cut out large and small circles. Press large circles into muffin tins, add about 2 t of mincemeat and top with small circles. Bake until the pastry is golden (I can't remember the exact time and temp I used, but it was probably 400 degrees for about 20 minutes).

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Obsessor's gift guide

Ok it is December, I am no longer in denial about the speed with which major holidays are approaching. For those of you in search of a gift for an obsessor in your life, or putting together your wish list to noodge those giving you gifts in the right direction, here are some ideas. This is stuff I'd like to receive if I didn't already have it--I don't think there is anything here over $20 and many are appropriately sized for stocking stuffing:

  • Good tongs--I can't tell you how many times I've been at the house of a good cook and found that they somehow survive without a pair of tongs.
  • Roasted walnut oil (or hazelnut oil if you have a hazelnut freak on your hands. Me, I'm a walnut girl.) Makes the best vinaigrette dressing ever. I like the stuff from La Tourangelle and recently saw some of it hiding on a shelf at TJ Maxx of all places.
  • Pastry cloth and rolling pin cover--for making pie crust. I love this thing. Cook's Illustrated recently disparaged it--they prefer parchment paper--but with a thorough flouring of the cloth and cover, I have never had pastry stick to it. Of course Cook's Illustrated also mentioned that they wash the covers every time they use them to which I say--Ha! You don't have to worry about rancid bits of pie dough festering away on the thing between uses if you flour it thoroughly enough that the dough never gets a chance to stick. I sometimes do give mine a shake out the back door to get rid of excess flour before I fold it back up and store it in its ziplock baggie. But wash it? Too OCD for me.
  • Microplane zester--I've been contemplating getting a second one since I use my current one so much and sometimes have to wash it three times in an evening when lemon zest, Parmesan, and nutmeg all need to be produced. And for God's sake, get the one with the handle so your favorite cook doesn't grate off their palm.

  • The Hummingbird's Daughter (in paperback!)--I raved about this book here.
  • The Welsh Girl--I raved about this book here.
  • The Goose Girl--And this one I think I forgot to rave about, but it is for those of you who are nurturing a young reading freak. I've always liked retellings of the classics and this one takes a Grimm tale and turns it into a compelling story about a young woman who learns to define who she is, rather than let others define her.
  • If your recipient can handle potentially tragic/depressing, yet really beautiful, literature as a holiday gift--some people are not so grateful to get a book that will make them cry--there is Half of a Yellow Sun and Flight.

  • A skein of Crack-silk haze is a luxury that can be used in many ways. There are 33 colors and enough yardage in one skein to make a wispy scarf, or use it to make an ethereal trim on a chunkier sweater.
  • A subscription to Craft magazine or Interweave Knits--if you have a crafter who isn't addicted to the web then these paper magazines are pretty great. Not really so necessary for we blog addicted types...
  • Bias tape maker--this little thingy is fun! You cut strips of fabric on the bias and feed it through this gadget and it comes out ready to iron into perfect bias tape. Now I'm trying to think of what exactly I plan to do with 10 yards of bias tape....

For chrissake just give any writer in your life a little time. That's the only gift that I'm asking for from my Mother in Law. She has been kid-tending while I take my Friday pastry class this autumn; as I'm not taking any cooking classes next semester, I'm hoping she'll keep kid-tending while I use my Friday to write. God knows, other than this blog, this year has not been a productive one on the writing front for me.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Thanksgiving dinner went pretty well--the kids ate a little of the food I made (though Ian insisted on a cheese omelet for dinner...), the crunch factor helped me enjoy the meal, and best of all we didn't burn down my parents' house or burn ourselves with the deep fried turkey:
I made him wear the face shield...and yes, our turkey was rather wee.

But rather than dwell on a meal that even at its best is never going to be my favorite, I'd rather talk about a meal that is way more my kind of Thanksgiving, namely what we ate at the latest meeting of my book group:
We got together the week before Thanksgiving to discuss The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea and eat Mexican food. First off, the book is wonderful and I'll be sending it to British relatives for Christmas this year (since The Welsh Girl--the book I had been planning to gift--was nominated for the Booker Prize I'm pretty sure my relatives will have already read it.) Urrea has the unique ability to write about religion, mysticism, and miracles without getting the least bit pompous or excessively reverent in tone--not an easy thing to do in in a book chock full of commentary on leftist politics, class, revolution, national identity, faith, and love. It helps that the book is over 500 pages so it can pack in a hell of a lot, but the thing that struck me even more than many instances of lyrical beauty of the writer's prose, is the humor in the book. I'm having trouble remembering the last time a piece of literary fiction made me laugh out loud as much as this one did. And a lot of the humor is centered on the stupid things that men do. Urrea makes his male main characters sympathetic, flawed and hysterical at the same time and the female characters, particularly Huila, powerful, warm and cantankerous.

There is plenty to say about magical realism and history (the main character, Terisita, was a real woman and also the author's great aunt) but what struck me most about the book was the number of times that I thought we were headed to a somber scene and instead finding myself surprised by laughter. I doubt that anyone can read the letters between Terisita and the self-proclaimed "Pope of Mexico" and not crack a smile.

Enough of your blathering, Kate! Get to the food!

We started out with a large quantity of guacamole and some homemade roasted tomato salsa (adapted from Lynne Rosetto Kaspar's version) that I brought along with wonderful tortilla chips from Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory (available at both Morgan and York and Arbor Farms), and Lea brought out some (non-Mexican but really tasty) green olive and pomegranite tapenade with pita chips:Then we had some creamy-spicy butternut squash soup that Ami picked up from Prickly Pear Cafe,followed by chicken with pumpkin seed mole sauce, rice, tortillas, plantains, and salad.For dessert we had coconut sorbet, two kinds of ice cream (dulce de leche and chocolate) and pineapple with chile powder.The pineapple with chile came straight from the book--Don Tomas buys paper cones of tropical fruit sprinkled with chile a number of times--and each time I read it, I wanted to try it. And the result? Terrific! Something so simple, but really lovely. You could swank it up a little if you made a pineapple, mango, papaya salad and topped it with slivered mint and chile powder, but for ease simply cutting up a ripe pineapple and sprinkling on a little chile powder can't be beat. I highly recommend stocking the house with pineapple and chile so you can snack on it while reading the book.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


It is Thanksgiving morning, I should be rolling out pie crust, but what I really want to do is indulge a different greedy urge--reading. I have some recent evidence of my book appetite:
Yup, eight works of fiction I just received from the library. (From the top, Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth, Rudolph Delson's Maynard and Jennica, Valerie Martin's Salvation, Roddy Doyle's Paula Spencer, Ward Just's Forgetfulness, Nancy Horan's Loving Frank, Bobbie Ann Mason's Nancy Culpepper, and Jennifer Gilmore's Golden Country)

And thanks to the suggestion from Jan at Jan's Daily Dish (aka "All the latest from Heavensville..."), I have a new way to a) waste time and b) show off my library addiction on my side bar with the new widget from Library Thing. Cool isn't it? If you want to make one for your blog, go here. Thanks to the Ann Arbor District Library's wonderful web site, I can import the books I have checked out to my account to Library Thing and don't have to go the tedious route of typing in all the titles.

Of course, since I also check out all the kids' books on my card, I do have to go through the list and delete their (many) selections like Ian's latest thrilling read: The Endocrine system, the reproductive system, human development and Fiona's choice: Young naturalist's handbook. Insect-lo-pedia.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What we'll be drinking

I just got back from Arbor Farms where I was picking up the last of the ingredients for our Thanksgiving menu and, most fun of all, picking out what we'll drink:From right to left--Vruit, for the small people, Estancia 2006 Pinot Noir with dinner, and for the cheese course, a half-bottle of Chateau Beylieux 2003 Sauternes.

Arbor Farms has good deals on wine. Their selection isn't the biggest in town, but the store manager loves to talk about wine (he pointed me to the Estancia and said it was a great deal and better than some of the higher priced Pinots he carries) and they give you a 10% discount when you buy any 6 bottles.

I was going to get some tawny port for the cheese course, but then I spied the Sauternes and went for that. The first time I tasted Sauternes was when I lived in Bordeaux and was invited to dinner at one of the profs houses. A fellow lecteur, who was a non-drinker, brought along a bottle of Sauternes that someone had given him; the prof said that it was a really good Sauternes, way out of a lecteur's price range, and when it rolled across my tongue it made me think of liquid gold. Since it is cold and damp and rainy today, I was inspired to bring that bit of sunshine to our meal tomorrow. It probably won't be as glorious as that first sip years ago (especially since this is a relatively affordable bottle), but I'll embellish it with my memories.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The crunch factor

I must say, this is a very curious feeling. I am actually looking forward to Thanksgiving this year. I've bitched about the holiday in the past, but this year, for the first time, I have some agency over the holiday menu--my sweet, lovely, lousy-cook mother-in-law is out of town visiting her brother and so I get to be responsible for the meal planning. I contemplated a rather radical Thanksgiving--turkey with Vietnamese stuffing, maybe some steamed kimchi dumplings, that kind of thing. But when I proposed this to the other people who will be dining at the table that night, I saw some confused looks and not much in the way of enthusiastic cheers.

Then I thought about it a bit more and figured that some small tweaks to a more traditional menu could make the meal palatable to me, and still not rock the boat. What I dislike most about the traditional meal that my mother-in-law dishes out each year is the mush factor--pretty much everything at the table has a squishy texture (except for the turkey which, unfortunately, she cooks until it is dry...): mashed potatoes, stuffing, candied yams, canned cranberry sauce, soft rolls.

I don't care for squish.

I found that adding a little crunch back into the meal makes it one that I can look forward to. I'll still make a few mushy things for those traditionalists at the table (buttermilk mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy), but the turkey will be deep fried (using Brian's birthday present), the hush puppies will replace the rolls, the Brussels sprouts are served tender crisp, and there will be a salad with a nice sharp vinaigrette to contrast with the richness of the rest of the meal. Also I'll reduce the sweetness factor--the cranberry relish I'll make is piquant with ginger and jalapeño, and the sweet potatoes will be smoky with Spanish paprika.

So here is our menu:

Friday, November 16, 2007

If I was a Scarlet Ibis... plumage would be really pretty now. Scarlet Ibis' require beta carotene to keep their plumage bright--take a look at this guy who has clearly been eating his fair share of red crabs, or, since he's a bird in captivity, his beta carotene pills. Now look at this poor guy who hasn't been taking his supplements--wan and pale and pink, not scarlet. (Sorry not to publish the photos here--their licensing requirements are too cryptic for me to figure out).

But since I'm not a bird and I live in the Northern Latitudes and haven't been getting much sun and I don't use tan-in-a-can products, the yellowish glow to my skin is carotenodermia, which comes from consuming too many orange foods rich in Vitamin A.

Whew--this is a really long winded way of saying that I'm stumbled across a few really good recipies using sweet potatoes and pumpkin, so I'm going to shut the hell up about the birds and their plumage and tell you to try these two recipes.

One of the recipes came from the aptly named blog, Simply Recipes. I followed the recipe for Creamy Sweet Potato Soup to a T up until the final moments. The author garnished her soup with chopped celery leaves and I went a less healthy route topping each bowl with some crumbled bacon. A while back I had a bowl of sweet potato soup with bacon at Eve and thought the combo was good, though one does have to go light on the bacon or the sweet potato flavor is lost. Brian was very happy with this soup. First he said "this is good." Then he said "this is very good." Then he said "this is you-should-make-this-again good." Brian doesn't comment much on food (opposites attract, right?), so for him to express himself three times about something he is consuming means it really had an impact. I had hoped that one of the small people might taste it; if I had known she would refuse, I might have added a little bit of cayenne too. There are three representatives of the allium genus in the recipe--onion, leeks and garlic--which help balance out the sweetness; add the smoky hit from the bacon and you have a really nice soup.

The other recipe is for pumpkin bread. I know there are so many recipes for pumpkin bread out there that the world hardly needs another, but I really like this one. I don't often make quick breads for my own consumption (I do make muffins for the small people a lot) because many of them are too sweet for my taste. This one isn't.
I took this recipe from Epicurious and modified it slightly so it is marginally healthier. I've made it as bread twice and muffins once and liked it so much that, well, as I said, my skin is turning yellowish.

Cranberry Walnut Pumpkin Bread

1 C all purpose flour
1 C white whole wheat flour
1/3 C ground flax seeds
1 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t ground ginger
1/4 t allspice
1/4 t nutmeg or mace
1 t baking powder
3/4 t salt
1/2 t baking soda
6 T (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 C sugar
2 large eggs
1 C canned pure pumpkin
1 t vanilla extract
2/3 C buttermilk
1/2 C dried sweetened cranberries
1/2 C coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a loaf pan with non-stick spray, or line muffin tins with papers. Sift flour, spices, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in medium bowl to blend. Add flax seed. Beat butter in large bowl until fluffy. Gradually add sugar, beating until blended. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time. Beat in pumpkin, then vanilla. Beat in dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk in 2 additions each. Fold in cranberries and nuts. Transfer batter to pan. Bake bread until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour (about 20 minutes for muffins). Cool bread in pan on rack 15 minutes. Turn bread out onto rack.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Name mix up

The reason I hadn't read the wildly entertaining book, Heat, is that I thought the author was someone else. Heat is by Bill Buford. I thought it was by Bill Bryson.

Bill Bryson is an author of many books, all of which I think have entertaining features about them, but would be better as magazine articles. The first chapter or two can be fun to read, but then his voice starts to grate on me and it feels cutesy and over done. This is not a widely held opinion of the author's books--plenty of people like them from start to finish. I think they usually have one or two good moments and the rest is repetitive.

So when people told me I had to read Heat, I told them that I thought the author became tiresome after about 50 pages and I didn't have the stomach for it. My sincere apologies go out to Bill Buford whose book I am about half-way through and am enjoying as much as a novel (which is high praise from me). I have laughed and learned and tried hard to keep track of a vivid cast of characters.

The book is also making me very hungry, so it is a good thing that at last night's auction, I was the winning bidder on a basket of delicacies from Morgan and York. This morning I enjoyed my morning coffee with some toasted baguette slices topped with a poached egg, a little sea salt and black pepper, and drizzled with the Montalbano olive oil that I acquired last night. I think I have a new favorite breakfast.

Right now, I'm at the point in Heat where Buford is learning about pasta and I'm pretty sure that later this weekend I'll be making some fresh pasta to drizzle with this golden elixir.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Sweaters for the small

I finished knitting the sweater for my kid's preschool auction a while ago, but didn't finish the damn sweater because of this:
a completely idiotic number of ends to weave in.

I've made this baby sweater (and a matching hat) many times and yet each time I start it, I forget that I could make it a hell of a lot easier on myself to modify the pattern and knit the front and back as one piece and the sleeves and hat in the round. Of course being a bit of a procrastinator, I left it until last night to finish the sweater (which had to be turned in to the auction today) and this morning I gave it a quick steam press and ta da!
One baby sweater and hat to go to someone's small person.

Meanwhile, I have started another baby sweater that is much more fun to knit and will have minimal seaming when the knitting is completed:
It is the February sweater from Elizabeth Zimmerman's Knitter's Almanac. You have to love a pattern that is only a half page long! I'm using Lion Brand Cotton Ease in Lime (it doesn't look very limey in the above photo...). This yarn was discontinued--and the Lion Brand website still says is discontinued, get it together people--but came back! It's only $3.99 for a 100g ball so it will total $8 in yarn cost for the baby sweater. I really like the yarn--it feels like pure cotton but the acrylic makes it much less likely to split while being knit. If you want to see what it (hopefully) will look like when completed, look at some finished versions on Flickr.

Friday, November 02, 2007

White chocolate pain-in-the-ass

Today my group finally finished what we dubbed "white chocolate pain-in-the-ass."
It's actually a teardrop shaped dark and white chocolate mousse, with raspberry and chocolate sauces, whipped cream and a chocolate lattice. And all but the white chocolate mousse was pretty fun to make. We screwed up the first batch of mousse by overheating the white chocolate. It melts at such a low temperature (since it is cocoa butter with no cocoa solids) that you can't melt it over a double boiler, not even one on super low heat. It'll seize up and become crumbly and nasty if you don't melt it over hot tap water. And it takes forever--I think I built some new musculature in my forearm from stirring the stuff over the warm water bath for so long.

It ended up looking ok, though Brian pointed out what we all were thinking--the teardrop ended up looking kind of like a whistle...

It tasted pretty good, though I'd have preferred all dark chocolate mousse. I'm not much of a fan of white chocolate--too damn sweet for me--which is too bad because the other dessert we made today also featured white chocolate:
That's three almond tuilles with white chocolate whipped cream, fresh raspberries and raspberry sauce. It tasted pretty good and since the white chocolate was melted with some cream it wasn't such a pain in the ass to make. Personally, I would have preferred a higher fresh raspberry to the rest-of-the-sweet-stuff ratio. So I made a little one for myself:
I molded the tuille on an upside down mini muffin tin to make the cup, then put a rosette of the white chocolate whipped cream inside, loaded on the raspberries and topped it with some purloined candied almonds that another group made for a cake.

In case you think I am living in La La Pastry Land, I also present to you a dose of reality:
These are the cupcakes the kids and I made for Ian's class Halloween Party. I made vanilla cupcakes and French buttercream that got tinted lurid shades of green, yellow, purple and pink to match the Laffy Taffy tentacles. Yes, you read that right--I paired French buttercream with sour apple, banana, grape and strawberry Laffy Taffy. I'm sure that is considered a crime in some places. My cupcakes turned out messier than the great ones I saw on Flickr--I had a hell of a time getting the marshmallows to stick to the M and Ms for the eyeballs. Of course, some of the kids in the class ate the Laffy Taffy and the M and Ms and then threw away the vanilla cake and French butter cream. But Ian actually ate the whole thing, which may not sound impressive (cake and candy, geez kid) but for him, the picky eater extraordinaire, is quite an achievement.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Halloween is coming and Fiona is being fickle. She has refused to wear the "legacy" costume--far from being a hand me down, this one is more like an inheritance. Her Aunty Anna was a cockroach, I was a cockroach, her brother was a cockroach (twice), but will Fiona be a cockroach? Nope. My parents made this costume for us when we lived in Houston and were plagued by, you guessed it, cockroaches. It has a brown shell with a tight fitting hood, electrical wire for antennae and looks pretty creepy. Maybe I can lobby for her to wear it next year.

So with the cockroach rejected I went on to my back up-the hand-me down alligator costume. But she has been adamant that she wants to be a dragon. So it was time for that alligator to undergo metamorphosis.

Here we have the raw materials--alligator costume, wire coat hangers, purple satin fabric, some red and yellow scraps. Not pictured: the essential sticking stuff--duct tape and glue gun.
First I took a couple of wire coat hangers and formed kinda crappy wing frame:
The shape of the top part of the frame was all I really cared about because the bottom would be defined by the shape of the fabric:
I sewed the top seam on the sewing machine and then used the glue gun to attach the fabric to the frame and to seal the bottom, spiky-part of the wing shut.

I attached a figure eight of elastic to the center of the wings--one loop goes around each arm over the top of the fuzzy alligator suit.
I also added the forked tongue.
Now I just have to figure out how to attach the purple feet with yellow toenails (made of cardboard with fabric glued on) to her sneakers.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Playing with sauce

My group in my pastry class has moved on to plated desserts and that gives us lots of opportunities to play with sauce! This week we made apple charlottes and plated them with creme anglaise and caramel sauce. The charlottes were really lovely--the bread edge was slathered with a cinamon butter sugar mixture before being put in the ramekins. This created a crispy, chewy, buttery ring that encased soft apples. Nice contrast.

First we tried the pool of creme anglaise striped with caramel:
Then we decided that the caramel sauce was so delicious that it should be more prominent:
This one also got a little scoop of maple ice cream on top that another group had made. Not absolutely necessary, but another nice contrast.

I really like serving individual desserts, maybe because I'm pretty lousy at serving slabs of cake and pie. There is also such a content feeling about having your own little complete plate. The only problem I'm having now is converting the recipes for the sauces to reasonable quantities--we had way too much of both sauces when we were done. One really only needs a little creme anglaise, even if you decide to go with plating variation 1. Caramel sauce is a little less problematic, since it can be saved in the refrigerator and reheated in small quantities, say, to top that late night bowl of ice cream.

Apple Charlotte with Caramel Sauce and Creme Anglaise
makes 8 portions

5 apples, peeled, cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick
2/3 C plus 1 T sugar
pinch salt
1 1/2 T fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 loaf (at least 8 good sized slices) of brioche, challah, raisin bread or quality white bread. Sliced, with crusts removed.
1 stick butter
1 t ground cinnamon
8 ramekins

Caramel sauce (recipe below)
Creme anglaise (recipe below)

preheat oven to 350.

Put apples, 2/3 C sugar and lemon juice in a sauce pan and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until the apples have softened. Don't stir too much--you don't want them to get mushy.

Place the butter, 1 T sugar and cinnamon in the bowl of an electric mixer and cream until smooth.

Slather each piece of bread with the cinnamon butter. Really load it on. You need about 1 slice of bread per ramekin. Cut each slice into 3 pieces and line the sides of the ramekins with the pieces; kinda squish them in there firmly so they don't fall apart when you unmold the charlottes (the buttered side should be touching the walls of the ramekin).

Compactly fill the inside of each ramekin with about 1/4-1/3 C of the apple mixture.

Bake the charlottes for about 30 minutes. Check and see if the bread has crisped and looks caramelized. If not, bake a little longer.

Remove from the oven, run a knife around the edge of each ramekin, then invert onto individual plates.

Make a circle of caramel sauce around the charlotte. Make drips of creme anglaise in the caramel sauce and then take a toothpick and run it in a circle around the plate and through each drip of creme anglaise to make the heart shapes.

Caramel Sauce
This makes more than you need. It can be stored in the fridge and rewarmed. Tastes great over ice cream too.

1 1/2 C granulated sugar
1/2 C water
pinch of salt
1 C heavy cream

Combine sugar, water and salt in a heavy bottomed (small) saucepan. Dissolve sugar over low heat. Then increase the heat to high and cook without stirring until the sugar is a golden amber color. Use a pastry brush dipped in water to wash down the sides of the pan to prevent sugar from crystallizing. (Be patient, this takes a while, but don't turn your back because the after the sugar turns amber, it quickly burns).

Remove from heat and slowly stir in cream a little at a time. Return to heat if necessary.

Creme Anglaise
3 egg yolks
2 oz sugar
1 C milk
1 t vanilla extract

Combine yolks and sugar in a stainless steel bowl. Whip until thick and light.

Scald milk. Temper the egg yolks mixture (add a little hot milk to yolks and beat it up, add a little more milk, until you raise the temp of the yolks without cooking them). Then add yolk mixture to remaining milk, whisking to combine. Heat over a water bath stirring constantly until it thickens and coats the back of a spoon.

Strain into a bowl. Cool over an ice bath. Stir in vanilla.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Home effort

Brian requested a chocolate mint cake for his birthday on Sunday, which gave me an opportunity to put some of the Pastry class skills I've been acquiring to use. The above pictured cake is the result of my effort and, while it looks a little lumpy in places, it tasted really great. It had three layers of chocolate cake, two layers of chocolate mint ganache and chocolate mint buttercream.

I'm still pretty crappy at getting the buttercream to look right on the cake, and not having the right equipment (offset spatula, cake comb) didn't help the matter. But the taste of the buttercream was by far the best thing about this cake.

I've never liked the kind of buttercream that you make with powdered sugar--it is just too damn sweet and makes me feel like I'm going to go into diabetic shock. And frankly, it freaks me out to see a recipe with a whole pound of powdered sugar in it.

One of the best things I have learned in my pastry class is that there is a buttercream that I can love--French buttercream. There is only 1 C of granulated sugar in the recipe which makes a buttercream that is far more palatable to me, and it also has a great texture with none of the chalkiness that can come from powdered sugar. The technique sounds like a pain in the ass when you first hear it, but it really is pretty simple--beat up some egg yolks until they are thick and light. While the mixer is beating away, heat up the sugar with 2 oz water and make a syrup that reaches the soft ball stage (240 degrees). Then with your mixer still running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl (so it doesn't splatter or make little hard droplets in your buttercream). The heat of the sugar cooks the yolks so they are safe to eat. You can add your melted chocolate and peppermint extract now. Then you leave the mixer running and beating the hell out of the stuff until it is pretty cool. Then blop in pieces of room temperature butter until it is all combined.

The frosting is silky smooth with just the right amount of sweetness and richness. Brian tasted it and his whole face lit up--it is that good--and both of us had to resist sitting down and eating it with a spoon.

Chocolate Mint Buttercream
adapted from Recipezaar

enough to frost and fill a 3 layer cake

8 oz granulated sugar
2 oz water
4 egg yolks
10 oz butter, softened
1/2 t peppermint extract (switch to 3/4 t vanilla if you want plain chocolate buttercream)
3 oz good quality bittersweet chocolate, melted over a double boiler and cooled slightly

  1. Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar.
  2. Continue to boil until the syrup reaches a temperature of 240 degrees F.
  3. While the syrup is boiling, beat the yolks with a wire whip or the whip attachment of a mixer until they are thick and light in color.
  4. As soon as the syrup reaches 240 F, pour it very slowly in a thin stream down the side of the mixing bowl into the beaten yolks while whipping constantly.
  5. Beat in the peppermint extract and melted chocolate.
  6. Continue to beat until the mixture is completely cool and the mixture is very thick and light.
  7. Whip in the butter a lump at a time. Add it as fast as it can be absorbed by the mixture.
  8. If the icing is too soft, refrigerate it until it is firm enough to spread.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Home in progress...

In between dealing with the zucchini and tomato overloads, small person wrangling and pastry making, I've been slowly attempting to improve our living space. Our house is a work in progress and Brian and I are leisurely at best, and lazy at worst, about making the necessary improvements (did I mention the three foot deep pit that rendered the front door inaccessible for over a year?). But every once in a while we get a burst of improvement energy (or present environment disgust) and tackle another project.

The room which is currently our (small) living room (previously the dining room and before that, the kitchen--we've been shuffling rooms for a while now) finally got walls in August (trim coming in November!) It was down to the studs for a few years, then we insulated it and stuck up some plywood, and three years later I finally had the energy to push for drywall.

It isn't the greatest mudding job since I did it myself, but it is my hope that within the next 3 years (ok, maybe 5 years...), we will have started to build a living room addition on to the back of the house and the current living room will be transformed into a hallway/pantry and a half bath. Thus the lumps and bumps in my mudding will eventually be covered with shelves or tile.

After the drywalling, I painted the living room. First a hideous shade of too-bright almost-lime green (another of those "Whoops! looked ok on a swatch" moments), and after a couple of days of squinting and thinking that I needed sunglasses to stay in the room, I repainted it a softer green. I picked a Martha Stewart paint swatch (Fern Shoot) since all her colors are sort of subdued and I wanted to be sure we wouldn't be blinded by the room. I had them color match it using Olympic paint since it is zero VOC and I've done enough damage to my brain over the years without voluntarily inhaling toxins.

I like the color--it is cheerful without being overwhelming, but it does represent a decorating challenge. It needs neutral colors to balance it out. I have a bunch of nice black and white prints of my dad's photography that are matted and framed in silver frames that will look good on the walls. But our furniture? Well, that's another story.

Our couch used to be red twill, though it has faded and been beat up over the years of pet and kid ownership. It looked fine in a cream or white room, but horrific with the green walls. We have a beige ultra suede slipcover for the thing that we are currently using and which provides a neutral couch experience (a rich chocolate brown one would be nicer, but right now our aging and ailing cat often is puking on the current one so this is not the time to invest in an upgrade). Big bonus--the thing washes and drys well and fast.

So it is to the couch throw pillows I have turned my attention. I bought some fabric from to cover the hideous, but really comfy big pillow:
In the process of being swallowed, ahem, covered.

And I think it looks pretty good next to the nifty $7 Ikea Hedda covers.
I like the way the Queen Ann's Lace botanical print softens up the modernist plant on the Ikea pillow. Much as I love mid-century modern stuff (that would be my Dad's aesthetic and the one that I grew up with), Brian and I are a little too quirky to go that pure route. But the modernish-accents help keep our weird stuff, like this print (look closely--under each cow is a car brand or model), or Brian's Fez collection or my subversive toile, from looking too kitchy.

I also bought a couple of yards of the negative of the pillow fabric (currently on clearance): I haven't decided what to do with it yet--cover some more pillows? Make a roller shade for the window in the room?

Cider making time

I present to you the totally self-serving birthday present I am giving Brian for his birthday:
Nope, I'm not planning on deep frying a turkey; this stainless steel beauty is perfect for beer brewing and (drum roll please) hard cider making!

Now we need to pick a cider mill. The cider can be pasteurized (since we are adding champagne yeast to the cider to ferment it) but cannot have any preservatives (most of the stuff you get at a standard grocery store will have preservatives. So when Meijer's is having a sale and cider is $1.50 a gallon, go ahead and get it for mulling, but don't expect it to ferment).

The closest mill, Dexter Cider Mill, fits the bill--they don't even pasteurize--but unfortunately, we bought a half gallon there a couple of weeks ago and I wasn't impressed with the flavor. It was pretty bland stuff, lacked the spicy kick that I crave and tasted like it was overloaded with bland, sweet apple varieties, like red delicious.

Right now I'm tempted to try Erwin Orchards, in South Lyon. I wouldn't be tempted to go apple picking there because they don't have my favorite apple, the Jonathan, available. But I have heard good things about their cider from an email list I'm on.

The other three mills under consideration (all of which I'd have to call to find out if they add preservatives) are:

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I went a leeeetle bit overboard....

at the Farmer's Market today...
But how could I resist this huge box of tomatoes for $5? They are ostensibly "seconds" but other than the odd spot or crack (and all Brandywines have cracks in them) they seem like "firsts" to me. There's a nice mix too--heirlooms (Brandywine and Golden Jubilee), romas and some standard reds of indeterminate origin.

I stumbled (the box is heavy) down to the next market stall and bought some peppers and eggplants:
I might have gone a little overboard in the eggplant department too....

So what to do with this bounty?
  • I'm still hooked on the eggplant-feta-mint salad that I raved about here a couple of weeks ago and it uses tomatoes and peppers too. I'd like to keep a container of this stuff in the fridge at all times for snacking. It leaves me with garlic-dragon breath, but so what?
  • If I can keep the small people subdued long enough to buy myself a little kitchen time this afternoon, I'm hoping to try this recipe for Tortino di Melanzone that was posted today on Gastronomical Three. I like the sound of the souffle-like addition of whipped egg whites which should lighten the dish up from the density of a traditional eggplant Parmesan.
  • Some of the tomatoes are destined for pico de gallo so I'll have to make something Mexican in the next couple of days to serve as the delivery device (other than just a big bag of chips...). I know there is a hunk of pork in the freezer which will probably be utilized.
  • And there's always ratatouille, though I don't yet have a favorite recipe--I don't think I've ever made a bad ratatouille, but I also haven't made one that knocked my socks off. If you have a favorite recipe, please send it my way.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Napoleon was a fatty...

...because he ate a lot of these:
Ok, so my Napoleon is leaning a little bit...but that's because it is soooo full of creamy goodness! I had one with a cup of tea this afternoon and the puff pastry is terrific--super buttery and crisp and sturdy enough to support that quantity of cream.

Yesterday I also made this:
but I didn't get to taste it because it'll be served on the dessert tray in the restaurant. Inside are three layers of vanilla chiffon cake, two layers of Bavarian cream swirled with raspberry sauce and punctuated with fresh raspberries (punctuated is probably the wrong word to use, but that's what it felt like as I poked the raspberries into the Bavarian cream.)

I have a feeling that my family are going to have higher expectations for their birthday cakes once this class is done...I won't be able to get away with churning out a batch of my favorite Mexican Chocolate Cupcakes topped with a powdered sugar stencil.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Look what I made!
Isn't it pretty?

I can't actually testify as to how the Marjolaine tastes all together, since it was to be served in the restaurant at WCC, though I did sample the parts that made up the whole--the hazelnut meringue, the chocolate and praline French butter cream, the ganache. I imagine that put together they packed quite a wallop of fat and sugar intensity.

I tried a couple of the plated desserts this week and wasn't terribly impressed with either. There was a raspberry sorbet with Champagne sabayon
and vanilla souffle with chocolate sauce.
The sabayon and the sorbet were fine, but not memorable, and whose idea was it to stick a wheat cracker in as a garnish? Ick. The souffle looked pretty but really tasted mostly of eggs, not of vanilla and the chocolate sauce was watery and tasted like cheap chocolate was used (it probably was cheap chocolate since it wasn't going to be served to the public.)

So the noshing at the last class wasn't as good, but at least my Marjolaine turned out!