What I did over Winter Break

My children might try to tell you that I spent their winter break hiding away in a pumpkin shell.

And maybe I did and maybe I didn’t.

And maybe the impossible sheen of my bouncy tail makes the whole issue a moot point anyway.

Ahh, such fluffy finesse.  It is not achieved through the wonders of coconut oil or conditioning.

Nope, it is the rejuvenating act of sticking my head inside a gourd and dimming the light switch of reality that does it for me.

It’s putting down the cell phone.

And leaving the laundry for another day.

It’s staring aimlessly out the window at the more industrious beings as they scurry to and fro striking impressive yoga poses using nothing more than a rotten pumpkin that’s been begging to be composted for months.

Oh yes, and it’s abdicating responsibility for feeding one’s family.  This is done best under the guise of  “helping the children gain independence in the kitchen.”

So while I curled up pumpkin-side and our rodents illustrated their dexterity, my children got busy.

They poured.  They mixed,

and they made short work of my boastful popover display with their gorgeous oven-baked pancakes.

Whereas my popovers are finicky and unpredictable, this oven pancake shows up every time, delicious in all its fluffy splendor.

Here’s the recipe.   Though I believe the true secret lies in the sitting back and sipping coffee while the children make breakfast (Warning:  when one abdicates power in the kitchen, one’s children might locate the food coloring.  Which is how one might find herself dining, ala Sam I Am, on a plate of green pancakes.)

And though you may find gangrenous pancakes unappealing, you will eat them.

You will eat them in a boat.  And you will eat them with a goat.

And you will eat them in the rain.  And you will eat them on a train.

Perfectly Pernicioius Popovers

Dang that title sounds good.

Good enough that in the name of honoring this amazing breakfast treat we will ignore the self-incriminating feel of it.

I know what you’re thinking.  That if I must insist upon this alliterative annoyance, why not go with something more suitable?

Persnickety perchance? That packs the power of the literary ‘p’.

And persnickety does reference the careful labor demanded by the stubbornly mysterious popover recipe.

Nah, persnickety doesn’t make the cut.  Why?  Because I am unwilling to log the details that might explain why this recipe delivers breakfast magic on some days, and dense little pancake-flavored hockey pucks on others.

I know first-hand the disappointment of the pop-under.   I just haven’t worked out if I should blame the weather or the children or the 250 pound squirrels that leap and twirl upon our deck while the poor treats are trying to cook.

DARN YOU POPOVER!  HOW I YEARN TO UNLOCK YOUR ‘TO POP OR NOT TO POP’ DRAMA!

Hence, pernicious.

Moving on.

Pernicious.  Perfection.  Popovers.

The words are a careful caress.  They pour forth effortlessly, tumbling one into the next and in so doing create an overall feeling of peace and harmony and goodwill for all mankind.

That’s the kind of power a perfect popover can punch.

Warning (every great recipe should come with a warning):

Your pops could flop.  Sometimes, they will not.

Popovers are like that.

Pernicious.  Persnickety.  And perfectly fabulous when they want to be.

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Bowl

Excuse me the title, but when Acadia showcased her Queen Monster Tomato my mind had yet to make the leap from Shark Week and bigger boats to farming and jumbo tomatoes.

And when I say we’re gonna need a bigger bowl…

I mean with all hands on deck and tomato juice flying and canning jars bubbling away and our floor running red with the carnage of so much flesh being torn limb from oops, sorry.  Darn shark week muddling my metaphors.

Argggh, who needs sharks?  I’ve got a couple of  scurvy lasses willing to flash their knives in the name of preserving food.

And while all hands were on deck for slicing dicing squeezing and chopping,

a funny thing happened to me.  In the midst of all this my pulse, racing with the pressure of back to school and outgrown sneakers and unfamiliar schedules and shark attacks, started to beat just a bit smoother.  And my brow, furrowed with the worries brought on by a new middle-schooler and a calendar to be updated with activities galore, relaxed back into my forehead.

So what does one do with an abundance of relaxed emotions and a couple of backyard apple trees that chose this year to produce hundreds of glamour-shot worthy beauties?

Easy.  One leaps deftly from canning tomatoes to grinding out applesauce.  And once again our workers sliced and diced and ground away

all in the name of putting up enough sustenance to keep us well throughout the harsh winter to come.  Oh the joy of walking past the crumbling destruction that is our flooded basement and into the storage closet that now houses this bounty —

(Note to the nay-sayers:  Yes, one can survive on tomatoes, applesauce and jam alone.  But just in case, say hello to our back-up plan:  Operation Vegetarian Katniss.

He’s Not Huntin’ Wabbits

What is our caped crusader up to this time?

I’ll give you a hint:  There are no wabbits on that rooftop.  But he is after something….

I know.  All super-hereos have their kryptonite, why should mine be any different?

He has a nemesis–

Do not be fooled by the banal laugh and bright feathers.  This evil bird haunts us;  every spring, sure as the unwanted snows cover the tulips,  woodpecker arrives on our roof in the pre-dawn hours to pound away like a jack-hammer on acid in hopes of attracting a mate.

He must go.  The squirrels and the robins are our friends.  But this early morning wake up call simply won’t do.

We’ve discussed my husband’s single minded dedication to triumph over the woodpecker here before.  He’s out to get that bird.  And I am totally on board.  If I were any more supportive I’d be a bra.

It’s just that there is already a pretty impressive arsenal awaiting our fine feathered friend.  Our roof currently sports a large mirror, a duct-taped reinforced line of nails, and now this —

Yup.  It’s patriotic. It’s plastic.  It spins in the wind.   And our house is officially that house.  Sorry, neighbors.  And here you were so supportive of the whole bug-selling venture.

Meanwhile, down here on the ground–

That snow was so 2 days ago.  This weekend Mother’s Day brought sunshine and daisy-chains.  Head over to Digging in the Dirt to see The World’s Longest Dandelion Chain and other garden updates.

Spoiler alert — you’ll find this Gardener’s Challenge.  Tell me, please, what on earth has gotten my rhubarb so excited?

I’m Not Getting Voted Off This Homestead

The last attempt I made to live off the land didn’t go very well.   Half pint and pa never bagged a bear, and what with all the churning and mending to be done I utterly failed at the task of putting up enough food to feed my family.  It was barely November and I had to hitch the old (station) wagon up to the grocery store trading post.

No amount of chopping wood would have saved me from being voted out of the Frontier House.

I don’t know how those pioneer ladies did it.  They were a tough breed.

Kind of like my own pioneer babe–

Don’t let the Holly Hobby dress and sweet smile fool you.  This nine year old is brimming with teenage ‘tude that would serve her nicely should I follow through with my decision to free-range her out on the open frontier.  And since you were wondering, yes I did wear this dress to school as a suburban child of the seventies.  There is simply no denying it, when it comes to fashion I’ve always been ahead of my time.

But never mind that, food failure was so last year.  My family is on target to make it through this year, this entire year, completely independent from grocery stores.  That’s us, totally self-sufficient…at least as far as jam is concerned.

Oh shush.  Don’t tell me I can’t keep a family on jam alone.  I can do whatever I want.

I made jam, didn’t I?  See–

When we polished off the last of the jars I made back in June, I simply defrosted what was left of our strawberry puree from the picking last fall.   Then I added just a pinch of sugar.

Or perhaps it was a wagon-load of sugar.  I’m not exactly sure.  Then a dollop of magic–

And Voila!  Jam!

2009/2010 will be known far and wide as the year we made it on jam alone.  Impressive, yes, but for 2010/11 I’ve set my sights a little higher.

Welcome to my lofty goal of the year:  tomatoes.  These guys may not look like much but just you wait.  These little guys have been tapped to nourish my family throughout the year to come.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

One Upping Grandma

I did it. I one upped my Grandma.

It’s not a nice thing to say, I’ll give you that.  But it’s true.  I made Grandma’s cake, and mine came out better.

Huh, it sounds kind of obnoxious when I write it out loud like that.

Still, if she were here today I know she would be proud.  She would take one look at this beauty…

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and kiss me and tell me that not only am I beautiful and talented but I am also the smartest girl in the whole wide world.

Grandmas are good like that, and yet here I am spouting off about making a better cake.  I am truly a rotten creature.

Though in my defense I did publicly admit that my sweet old granny, were she alive today, would be the odds-on-favorite to beat me at arm wrestling.  Probably she had her reasons for making the cake her way, which was a bit heftier and came in sets of two.

Which brings me to the initial reason for reworking the recipe – the mathematical fact of the situation is this:  I make 2 cakes, I eat 2 cakes.  Never mind that I don’t have a house of people clamoring for dessert.  I will eat them alone and I will eat them fast and I will eat them all and then, even though chocolate is my very best friend and would never punch me in the face like some vegetables I know, I still might end up with a touch of a tummy ache.

So no, two cakes are not a feasible option for me and my pathetic lack of self restraint.  But one cake? One cake is gooood.  Really really gooood.

Warning: I push cakes like thugs sell drugs.  If you feel vulnerable you should step away now.

Because Grandma’s cake (gloriously updated) is delightful. It’s light, it’s fluffy, and it’s low enough in sugar that it’s (heads up, pun ahead) a piece of cake to convince yourself that 4 helpings a day is reasonable. (That’ a small piece after lunch, a nice piece for after school snack with the kids, a piece for dessert after dinner, and one nice slice with a glass of wine after the kids go to bed.)

I’m not going to tell you that you’ve got to make and eat this cake.  No, scratch that, I will tell you exactly that:  Make this cake. You won’t be sorry.

Trust me.  I’ve spent the last few years researching the healthy way to eat.  I know vegetables are good.  But sometimes veggies turn on us, and we need another choice.  And that choice, my friends, is cake.

Still not convinced?  Here are the indisputable facts:

  1. Nuts are packed with protein
  2. Dark chocolate is full of antioxidants
  3. Eating cake makes us better human beings*

*this is true but let’s not demean the research but disclosing something mundane like supporting facts.

Chocolate Nutty Swirl Cake

Or, the cake formerly known as Yeast Cake

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This is my Grandmother’s cake, updated and renamed because, really, who wants to eat something called Yeast Cake? Sounds like some kind of home remedy for something that should not be discussed on a recipe page.

DO NOT BE PUT OFF BY THE TIME NEEDED FOR THIS BABY TO RISE.  IT IS WORTH EVERY MINUTE, I PROMISE YOU.

Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbls of Yeast, dissolved in 1/3 cup of warm water
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup milk
  • 3 cups of flour
  • 1/3 cup of sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 ½ cups of ground walnuts
  • Unsweetened cocoa for sprinkling
  • Canola oil (or other mild flavored oil) for sprinkling

To Do:

  1. Dissolve yeast in warm water, set aside for 5-10 minutes
  2. Warm the milk over low heat and melt the butter in it.  Don’t let milk get too hot.
  3. Mix together flour, sugar and salt
  4. Beat eggs lightly, then add to the flour mixture.
  5. Add the milk/butter mixture to the flour mixture.
  6. Blend with wooden spoon until it starts to come together.  Make an indentation in the center and pour in the yeast water.
  7. Mix, adding more flour if dough seems too sticky.
  8. Cover loosely and let rise for 2 hours, or let it rise in the fridge overnight.

Once dough has risen:

  1. Punch down the dough and knead a little bit, no more than a minute or two.  Roll it out into approximately an 18” square.
  2. Sprinkle the ground nuts over the entire surface of the dough.
  3. Sprinkle cocoa powder to cover the nuts – not thick, but covered
  4. Sprinkle sugar sparingly over the entire surface.
  5. Drizzle oil, kind of like a Jackson Pollock. About 4-5 Tbls total should do the trick
  6. Once the surface is covered, roll the dough along the longer side to form a tube, applying a little extra oil if needed to get the edges of the tube to stick together.
  7. Bring the ends together to make a circle.
  8. Put the whole thing into a kugelhopf form (round pan with a hole in the middle) and allow to rise 1/2 hour more.

Finally….

Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.

Note: as soon as I devour the current cake I will make another, and try to stop and photograph the process. The resulting pictures will be smeared with chocolate, but will show that it’s not as complex as it sounds. Really.

Grandma Was So Much Tougher

For some, the holidays are a time of peace.  A time to reflect on special stuff, family stuff.   A time to recall the little things that made Grandma so sweet.

This year the holidays gave me a wallop by way of a sudden and tremendous recognition that my Grandma, all four feet ten inches of her, was an ass-kicking strong man in disguise.  She was strong, not as in, wow, she overcame so much when she moved to this country with nothing more than the snow in which she’d walk both ways up hill to her destinations.

No, I’m talking strong as in, this is an actual un-retouched picture of my Grandmother, taken long ago in the old days–

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(Anyone know what happens when you call up the spirit of Jack Lalanne twice in four months? I’m guessing it means I can skip the gym today, right?)

Anyway, Grandma was strong.  I base this retrospective assessment on a recent attempt to recreate a recipe from our ancestry for my daughter’s class assignment.

Recipe?  Said I.  Oh no, we can do better — we’ve got the actual cookie press from my little old cookie-making Grandmother.

Note: The 2000 in the name refers to number of humans on the earth at the time this was manufactured.

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My grandma made cookies with this gem, which is basically a caulking gun for the kitchen.  The dough goes in one end and, with the ease that one would birth a thirteen-pound baby, out pops the cookies.

push

PUSH!

Breathe.

PUSH!

Breathe.

My children, not yet being of cookie-bearing age, left the toiling to me, though they did step in to add a teaspoon or twelve of sugar to the globs that I managed to produce.

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In the end all I got for my efforts, for those hours of shoulder-twisting wrist-jarring pain, was a lousy batch of sugar cookies.  That’s like going through 3 days of back labor to birth a dart frog.  Cute, yes.  Sweet, sure.  Just not exactly what I had in mind going in.

Things were tough in the old days.

Maybe sugar cookies were all that they knew.

Maybe Grandma didn’t have easy access to chocolate.

But I do.

Chocolate is the best.

And it never makes me work this hard.

I’ll Have Thanksgiving When I Want to Have Thanksgiving

The thing about holidays is that there are billions of things that can make one cranky.  Jacked-up airline prices and crowded airports; insanity at the market and children who insist on dallying with strep throat.  Not to mention the pressure, the crowds, and all those random crazy hungry people who insist they are related to you.

You can’t do much about the crazies other than learn to love ’em.  But the rest of it can be avoided if you do what I do: schedule Thanksgiving for whenever the heck it works for you.  Trust me, if you roast it, they will come.  For us, Thanksgiving was this past weekend.

I cooked this sumptuous meal–

Pictured: smattering of little people who would consume the turkey.

Not pictured: the actual turkey.

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Thing is,  I can’t figure out how those fancy-shmancy bloggies do it. I don’t know how they manage to bring home the bacon, fry it up with grease splattering everywhere and photograph it at the same time.  I get the camera into the kitchen, but when I’m up to my elbows in turkey butt with onion-induced tears streaming down my face I always forget to reach for it.

It’s probably a good thing.  Should I happen to remember one day I have no doubt that said camera would land itself right up in there with the onions and the apples and that would be no good. No good at all.

Posterity will have to wait.

Trust me when I tell you that the turkey was golden and gorgeous.  I started out with a deep muscle rub-down, a nice buttery-sage-cider massage which relaxed him enough to climb into that oven and do his job.

Mmmm, check out this golden roasted turkey–

family

If by golden roasted turkey I mean a haggard bunch of related turkeys posed on the front stairs.  Which I do.

This year for faux-Thanksgiving I took an atypical laissez-faire approach towards dessert.  Not eating it, of course, but making it.  I handed that duty off to my sister, who made a yummy pumpkin cheesecake, and my brother, who under pressure and duress from the wise woman-folk in his life agreed to make the cool, free-form apple pie we found in our new Pioneer Woman cookbook.

Baby brother delivered. Check out his results.  Err, I mean, Look! It’s Grandma and Grandpa with some of the kiddies at the park.

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Hang on a second.  With someone else bellying up to the old oven, I was freed up to snap some real live food pictures–

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Viewing this lovely picture one might think that the most enjoyable part about forcing a brother to bake a pie would be eating it.  But that wasn’t so.

The best part of this pie was the post-game debriefing provided by his supportive family. We lovingly went through every step of his process to point out where he went wrong and what he could have done better.  It was very kind of us, and although he bravely declined my offer of a pad and pencil for note taking,  I know my brother was thankful for the feedback.

At least on the inside.  And because my heart is just that big, I will give him another chance to redeem himself.  Aren’t big sisters the best?

And now, with our holiday feasting behind us, let me be the first to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.  I know, I know it’s early. But that’s the way I roll. Oftentimes I find myself ahead of the curve.

Setting the pace.

Dancing on the cutting edge.

But it’s all to your advantage dear reader.  I may completely rearrange the calendar to meet my needs, but that does not mean I’m selfish.  Just for you, you poor souls for whom the pressures of Thanksgiving still loom large on the horizon, I offer you this–an already planned, tried and true Thanksgiving menu–

My Thanksgiving Menu: The Recipes

Bon Appetit!

And with one last sultry look, she bid farewell forever

Oh, it was good.

Things were heating up.

I mean they were really cooking.  It was something special; a romance that had the kitchen hazy with steam.  My bosom heaved.  My hair fell in soft tendrils around my flushed face.

It was working.  It was hot.

Then, it was not.

At least I know I tried.  I gave it my all and it could have been a beautiful thing. It was a beautiful thing.  But now it’s an over thing.  And I’m washing my hands of the whole gloppy mess and moving on.  After all, the chemistry is gone, and you simply can’t make something work if there isn’t any chemistry.

You just have to know when it’s time to say goodbye.  Time to hitch your dreams to another day, turn to a better man.

You know, like a man who knows which way his chaps go. A man with a tractor.

Oops, sorry.  I digress.  Thing with chemistry is, without it homemade cheese is nothing more than lukewarm milk with stinky clumps of curds and whey.

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Ewww.  Curds.

Once upon a time I turned milk into mozzarella with a flirty twist of my wrist and Ricki’s homemade cheese kit. It was easy. It was delicious.  But I was living in a dream world, a world in which cowboys with burnished arms pull me down in the hay, and milk willingly transforms into cheese.

Back here in this world all I get is a gloppy mound of curds and whey the likes of which would have Little Miss Muffet gladly vacating her tuffet for any old spider that happened by.

Ahh, cheese. The kit was simple. The directions straightforward.  So when my (not ultra-pasteurized) milk decided that it no longer wanted to change into cheese I didn’t give up without a fight.  I consulted the cheese hot line.  I added extra citric acid.  I checked temperatures.

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But hot or not the chemistry was gone. And without chemistry hot milk is just that.

Hot, clumpy, stinky milk.

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Squelch.  Squish.  Ick.

And you thought the spider was the scary part of that nursery rhyme?